— The Erimtan Angle —

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports that a “new report detailing the devastating toll of vodka on male life expectancy in Russia has been published, just as the country marks the unofficial 149th anniversary of the spirit’s invention. The study published Friday [, 31 January 2014] in British medical journal The Lancet has found that 25 percent of Russian men die before the age of 55, compared with only 7 percent of men in the United Kingdom. Many of those deaths are thought to have been caused by Russia’s long-abiding devotion to heavy drinking. Average life expectancy for men in Russia is 64 years, compared to 78.5 for British men”.[1]

The report in question was prepared by Prof David Zaridze MD, Sarah Lewington DPhil, Alexander Boroda MD, Ghislaine Scélo PhD, Prof Rostislav Karpov and many others.[ii]  On the periodical website the following summary can be read: “Russian adults have extraordinarily high rates of premature death. Retrospective enquiries to the families of about 50 000 deceased Russians had found excess vodka use among those dying from external causes (accident, suicide, violence) and eight particular disease groupings. We now seek prospective evidence of these associations . . . In three Russian cities (Barnaul, Byisk, and Tomsk), we interviewed 200,000 adults during 1999—2008 (with 12,000 re-interviewed some years later) and followed them until 2010 for cause-specific mortality. In 151,000 with no previous disease and some follow-up at ages 35—74 years, Poisson regression (adjusted for age at risk, amount smoked, education, and city) was used to calculate the relative risks associating vodka consumption with mortality. We have combined these relative risks with age-specific death rates to get 20-year absolute risks . . . Among 57 361 male smokers with no previous disease, the estimated 20-year risks of death at ages 35—54 years were 16% (95% CI 15—17) for those who reported consuming less than a bottle of vodka per week at baseline, 20% (18—22) for those consuming 1—2·9 bottles per week, and 35% (31—39) for those consuming three or more bottles per week; trend p<0·0001. The corresponding risks of death at ages 55—74 years were 50% (48—52) for those who reported consuming less than a bottle of vodka per week at baseline, 54% (51—57) for those consuming 1—2·9 bottles per week, and 64% (59—69) for those consuming three or more bottles per week; trend p<0·0001. In both age ranges most of the excess mortality in heavier drinkers was from external causes or the eight disease groupings strongly associated with alcohol in the retrospective enquiries. Self-reported drinking fluctuated; of the men who reported drinking three or more bottles of vodka per week who were reinterviewed a few years later, about half (185 of 321) then reported drinking less than one bottle per week. Such fluctuations must have substantially attenuated the apparent hazards of heavy drinking in this study, yet self-reported vodka use at baseline still strongly predicted risk. Among male non-smokers and among females, self-reported heavy drinking was uncommon, but seemed to involve similar absolute excess risks”.[3]

The report conclusion, as reproduced on the internet, is pretty stark: “This large prospective study strongly reinforces other evidence that vodka is a major cause of the high risk of premature death in Russian adults”.[4]  The BBC’s Global health reporter Tulip Mazumdar insightfully remarks that in “1985, the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev drastically cut vodka production and did not allow it to be sold before lunch-time. Researchers say alcohol consumption fell by around a quarter when the restrictions came in, and so did overall death rates. Then, when communism collapsed, people started drinking more again and the death rates also rose. Sir [Prof Sir Richard Peto, one of the report’s many co-authors] said: ‘When President Yeltsin took over from President Gorbachev, the overall death rates in young men more than doubled. This was as society collapsed and vodka became much more freely available. There was a huge increase in drinking and they were drinking in a destructive way. They were getting drunk on spirits and then buying and drinking more, producing a big risk of death'”.[5]

The BBC’s Mazumdar continues that the ” consumption rates for women also fluctuated according to political events, but they drank less so mortality rates were also lower. Most drinkers were smokers as well which researchers say ‘aggravated’ the death rates. Russia brought in stricter alcohol control measures in 2006, including raising taxes and restricting sales. Researchers say alcohol consumption has fallen by a third since then and the proportion of men dying before they reach 55 years old has fallen from 37% to 25%. Half a litre of vodka costs around £3.00 (150 rubles). Heavy drinkers in this study were getting through at least a litre and a half of vodka a week. In 2011, each Russian adult drank on average 13 litres of pure alcohol every year, of which eight litres was in spirits, mainly vodka. In the UK the comparable figure is 10 litres per adult – but just less than two litres of that is in spirits. Researchers say the key problem driving the high death rate is the way Russians drink alcohol”.[6]


[1] “Vodka Blamed for Dismal Russian Life Expectancy Figures” RIA Novosti (31 Jan 2014). http://en.ria.ru/russia/20140131/187079194/Vodka-Blamed-For-Dismal-Russian-Life-Expectancy-Figures.html.

[2] Prof David Zaridze MD, Sarah Lewington DPhil, Alexander Boroda MD, Ghislaine Scélo PhD, Prof Rostislav Karpov, et al., “Alcohol and mortality in Russia: prospective observational study of 151 000 adults” The Lancet (31 Jan 2014). http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(13)62247-3/fulltext.

[3] Prof David Zaridze MD, Sarah Lewington DPhil, Alexander Boroda MD, Ghislaine Scélo PhD, Prof Rostislav Karpov, et al., “Alcohol and mortality in Russia: prospective observational study of 151 000 adults”.

[4] Prof David Zaridze MD, Sarah Lewington DPhil, Alexander Boroda MD, Ghislaine Scélo PhD, Prof Rostislav Karpov, et al., “Alcohol and mortality in Russia: prospective observational study of 151 000 adults”.

[5] Tulip Mazumdar, “Vodka blamed for high death rates in Russia” BBC News (31 Jan 2014). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25961063.

[6] Tulip Mazumdar, “Vodka blamed for high death rates in Russia”.

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