February 1, 2014 in Nation/World

Study finds vodka exacts heavy toll on Russian men

More than one-third die before age 55
Melissa Healy Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

Men sleep in downtown Moscow after drinking in this 2005 photo. Russian men who down large amounts of vodka have a high risk of early death, a new study says.
(Full-size photo)

“Vodka is our enemy, so we’ll utterly consume it!” goes the old Russian proverb. That love-hate relationship is thought to have helped send 37 percent of Russian men in 2005 to the grave before they had toasted their 55th birthdays. And a new study finds that, despite fitful campaigns to stem heavy drinking, vodka continues to exact a huge toll on Russian men.

Among male Russian smokers, 35 percent of those in the hardest-drinking category – those who consumed more than a liter and a half of vodka per week – died between the ages of 35 and 54, the study found. That death rate was more than twice as high for “lighter” drinkers, 16 percent of whom died before age 54.

The heaviest drinkers were a minority, at 8 percent of subjects in that age group, while 78 percent were classified as lighter drinkers. But 24 percent of the Russian men in the study were classified as heavy or intermediate drinkers, meaning they drank more than a bottle of vodka – half a liter – per week.

Among the intermediate male drinkers – those who said they consumed between half a liter and a liter and a half of vodka weekly – 20 percent would die between ages 35 and 54, and 54 percent would die between ages 55 and 74.

A dismal 50 percent of Russia’s male smokers who were in the lightest drinking category died between ages 55 and 74, the study found. But among the hardest drinkers, 64 percent died somewhere between those ages.

Virtually all of Russia’s male drinkers also smoke, so the authors of the study largely found they were comparing the death rates of male smokers as a function of how much vodka they drank. The basic unit of measurement they used was bottles of vodka consumed per week – a bottle being a half-liter (the equivalent of roughly 18 single servings of alcohol by U.S. standards).

The research, published Thursday in the journal Lancet, improves on past efforts to assess vodka’s wages on the Russian population. For existing studies, researchers have visited the homes of random Russians after they died and asked family members to report on the extent of their drinking. Such methods can be unreliable, because families’ recollections are often colored by the circumstances of the death.

The latest study is prospective, meaning that researchers, starting in 1998, recruited 151,000 Russian participants older than 35 while they were still healthy and asked them how much vodka they consumed (as well as other forms of alcohol, which were not as common and which generally tracked with vodka consumption). Most were re-interviewed three years after the first occasion to assess whether their drinking habits had markedly changed. Many had, but in different directions. Then the authors waited until 2011, and then counted the subjects who had died, and how.

The average life expectancy of men in Russia is only 64 years, putting it among the bottom 50 countries in the world. In a commentary published alongside the new study, Juergen Rehm of Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health wrote that since alcohol is clearly a contributor to those early deaths, state-sanctioned policies that reduce the availability of alcohol, including price increases, can be a valuable tool for increasing the longevity of Russian men.

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