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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Alcohol Behind Disaster

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 12 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Unprecedented declines in the life expectancy of Russian men and women since the collapse of the Soviet Union reflect equally dramatic increases in the consumption of alcohol, increases that themselves are the product of specific Russian government decisions.

According to a study published in the British medial magazine Lancet on Saturday, life expectancy at birth for Russian males fell from 63.8 years in 1990 to only 57.6 years in 1994. And this measure fell for Russian females from 74.4 years to 71.1 years over the same period.

Such changes in life expectancy are "without parallel in the modern era," the study concluded. And it noted that while declines in nutrition and general health may be responsible for some of the changes, "the evidence is that substantial changes in alcohol consumption over the period could plausibly explain" most of this decline.

Many observers have suggested that Russians have turned to drink as a result of some sort of generalized despair over the radical changes in their lives and status following the collapse of the USSR.

But a closer examination of this situation suggests that this linkage in fact reflects the unintended consequences of a series of Soviet and Russian government decisions over the last decade.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's 1986-87 anti-alcohol campaign not only had the effect of driving ever more Russians to produce their own home brew but also of highlighting the political dangers of trying to change the drinking habits of the Russian people.

Increased production of samogon as Russian home brew is known had especially negative consequences. Not only did it mean that the government lost control over much of the production of alcohol, but it also meant that ever more Russians were drinking something often of poor quality or contaminated by one or another poison.

Moreover, public outrage at Gorbachev's campaign -- he became known as the "mineral water secretary" among many Soviet citizens -- taught Russian President Boris Yeltsin an important lesson: trying to get Russians to stop drinking in order to improve their physical well-being would almost certainly be hazardous to any leader's political health.

But the impact of these factors was compounded by the impact of moves toward a free market. Because the government was unwilling or unable to use its tax powers to regulate the situation, the Lancet study found, "the price of alcohol fell relative to the costs of consumer goods" during this period.

And given this change in relative prices, ever more people have shifted from consuming non-alcoholic beverages to drinking alcoholic ones and from drinking light wine to hard liquor and especially vodka.

These findings might appear to suggest that Russia could escape from its current predicament by changing its regulations and taxes on alcoholic beverages in order to make such drinks less available and less attractive. But there are at least three important reasons why any such changes are unlikely to happen or have an impact in the near future.

First, the impact of alcohol consumption on life expectancy has been so high because it has hit the youngest age groups. Children born to mothers who have consumed large quanties of alcohol are particularly at risk of life-threatening deformities.

And even those children who have these abnormalities but do survive the first year of life are significantly more likely to die earlier in later years.

Second, too many Russians now see the private production and sale of alcoholic beverages as their right under a "free market." Other countries, including the U.S., have had to struggle to overcome the notion that the private production of alcohol is a perfectly legitimate activity. And Russia will have to do the same.

And third, Russian rulers face today a problem that they have faced before. Taking any steps to cut consumption will not only be politically risky but will reduce tax revenues and drive ever more people into purchasing non-regulated samogon.

And that in turn will only exacerbate the health risks to the population.

As any number of countries have discovered, prohibition does not work. But unless the Russian government and the Russian people develop a workable response to the demographic dangers they face, they will each face a problem far greater than the one caused by individual Russians drinking themselves to death.