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On October 8, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated in a report that the rate of alcohol consumption in Russia declined by 43% from 2003 to 2016. In particular, Russians are drinking less liquor and “unrecorded alcohol,” or alcohol which is unregulated, homemade, or smuggled into the country. The report notes a 40% decline in the consumption of recorded alcohol and a 48% decline in the consumption of unrecorded alcohol.
Additionally, the prevalence of heavy drinking among Russian men decreased from 75% in 2004 to 48% in 2016, a significant achievement in a country where researchers once projected that one out of every two working-age men would die prematurely from alcohol abuse. For women, the prevalence of heavy drinking decreased from 52% to 24% during the same period of time. Furthermore, the prevalence of alcoholism among patients in state-operated Russian hospitals declined by 38% from 2003 to 2017.
The WHO report predicts that the decline in alcohol consumption will reduce the incidence of alcohol-related health problems in Russia and alleviate costs for the Russian medical system. The report attributes the decline to government restrictions on the alcohol industry, falling demand for unrecorded alcohol, and rising interest in healthy lifestyles. Nevertheless, Russia continues to have one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption anywhere in the world. In fact, the average Russian over the age of 15 years old drinks about 11 liters (almost three gallons) of pure ethanol every year.
According to the WHO report, fewer Russians now partake in heavy drinking because the Russian government has been enacting rules to control alcohol sales. For example, the Russian government has raised excise taxes on all alcoholic beverages, increased minimum prices for vodka, banned unlicensed stores from selling alcohol, and imposed restrictions on alcohol sales after 11 p.m. The government has also prohibited advertising for alcohol on television, on the radio, online, in public transportation, and on billboards. In Moscow, Russia’s capital city, the police issue fines to people who drink alcohol in parks, courtyards, and other public spaces.
In 2013, the government made the decision to classify beer as an alcoholic beverage. Previously, any drink with less than 10% alcohol content was legally a “soft drink” in Russia. The new classification took effect after beer sales in Russia increased by 40%, prompting the government to raise taxes on the brewing industry by 200%.
Additionally, the government has taken measures to control alcohol smuggling and illegal alcohol production. In 2006, excise tax stamps for alcohol became mandatory in Russia. In 2014, the Russia government amplified criminal penalties for alcohol trafficking. Two years later, the government developed a monitoring system for all alcohol sales throughout the country. As a result, unrecorded alcohol in Russia is now less accessible.
The WHO report explains that the decline in alcohol consumption has also coincided with social initiatives to promote healthy lifestyles. Like many Americans and Europeans, more Russians are taking interest in exercise and nutrition. Consequently, many Russians are choosing to drink less alcohol.
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Alcohol is a major source of death in Russia and throughout the world. In fact, about 1 in every 20 deaths worldwide is the result of an alcohol-related disease, injury, accident, murder, or suicide. Alcohol abuse damages a person’s brain, liver, and other organs, and increases the likelihood of cancer and heart disease. According to the WHO report, life expectancy for Russians has risen as Russians have consumed less alcohol. In fact, overall mortality fell by 39% for Russian men and 36% for Russian women from 2003 to 2018. Currently, life expectancy in Russia is 68 years for men and 78 years for women. By comparison, life expectancy for Russian men was only 57 years in the 1990s, a period in Russian history when alcohol consumption increased.
According to a study from the Moscow Research Institute of Psychiatry, history shows that there is a correlation between life expectancy and alcohol consumption. “Trends in estimated total alcohol consumption and official alcohol sales strongly correspond with the observed shifts of mortality,” the researchers for the study explain. For example, from 1998 to 2003, the Russian economy grew while regulations on alcohol were minimal, so Russians purchased more alcohol and life expectancy declined. When the government began to regulate alcohol more vigorously in 2003, life expectancy began to rise.
Overall, since Russia was able to improve the health and longevity of its population by regulating alcohol, the WHO report recommends that other nations follow its example in order to increase the life expectancy of their own people. More specifically, the report concludes that restrictions on alcohol marketing and affordability are the “strongest and most cost-effective strategies” for saving lives from alcohol-related death.
The example of the Russian Federation shows how a country with one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption and alcohol-attributable harm in the world was able to reverse mortality trends to a considerable degree by implementing a strategy, sustained over the course of the last two decades, of reducing alcohol- attributable harm through a series of effective and evidence-based alcohol control policies.
Nathan Yerby is a writer and researcher. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.