Blame vodka for Russian mortality

STANFORD (US) — The end of an effective anti-alcohol campaign, not capitalism, can be blamed for a 40 percent surge in deaths in Russia between 1990 and 1994.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, working-age Russian men began dying in droves. Economists and political scientists blamed democracy and capitalism for leaving many people unskilled and unemployable, ushering in a sense of listlessness and depression that mixed too easily with cheap vodka.

“Most things that kill people disproportionately kill babies and the elderly,” says Grant Miller, assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University. “But working-age men accounted for the largest spike in deaths in the early 1990s.

Many people suspect that’s somehow entwined with political and economic transition, but there’s a lot more to it than that.”

Most of the deaths during Russia’s mortality crisis were from alcohol poisoning, drunken violence or slower killers like heart attacks and strokes.

Recognizing that alcoholism was a major cause of death and low work productivity, Mikhail Gorbachev instituted an aggressive anti-alcohol campaign in 1985, shortly after he became the Soviet Union’s secretary general that slashed official alcohol sales by two-thirds, drove up prices by as much as 50 percent and prohibited stores from selling alcohol before 2 p.m. on business days. Showing up intoxicated at work or on the streets could cost Russians a hefty fine or land them in prison.

“It was common practice for workers to take their breaks, go to a liquor store and come back to work drunk,” says Jay Bhattacharya, associate professor of medicine. “So the people behind the campaign thought closing the stores during the day could lead to more productivity and fewer work-related deaths and injuries.”

But the campaign also emphasized alternatives to drinking. A national temperance society was formed, propaganda promoted sobriety and administrators in all Soviet districts were required to build more parks and sports clubs to encourage family-friendly activities.

The campaign worked. The number of deaths plummeted in 1985 and remained below the pre-campaign trend throughout the late 1980s. That translated to a 12 percent decline in mortality rates or about 665,000 fewer deaths.

But by the early 1990s, shortly after the campaign was dropped—and at the same time that the Soviet Union crumbled—the number of deaths began to climb.

The temperance campaign officially folded in 1988 for two main reasons: It was wildly unpopular and the government realized it was losing too much money from low alcohol sales. By 1991, consumption was back to pre-campaign levels.

Russia’s heaviest drinkers—working-age men—fell off the wagon and mortality returned at an alarming rate.

The end of the campaign accounts for as much as half of Russia’s four-year mortality crisis, Miller and Bhattacharya say.

Grant Miller and Jay Bhattacharya say democracy is not to blame for a death spike in Russia in the 1990s. (Credit: L.A. Cicero)

“Welfare and health are not exactly the same thing,” Miller says. “You can restrict people’s choices in a way that improves health, but that doesn’t unambiguously mean that people are better off.”

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