OSB archive
OSB archive

Russia: the sobering truth

Jonathan Wood

A lot of the time, the tables, figures and graphs included in scientific papers can be pretty impenetrable for those outside that particular area of research. But just occasionally there are figures that can stand alone from a paper, illustrating clearly what the raw data show.

This figure comes close to that ideal. It is very clear that the overall death rate among adults aged 15–54 in Russia is much higher than in Western Europe. The reason? Alcohol.

Most, if not all, of the four-fold difference in risk of death now seen in this age range can be put down to alcohol, and to a lesser extent tobacco.

And while overall death rates in Western Europe have been decreasing, largely as people stop smoking, Russian death rates have fluctuated wildly as alcohol use has altered in the face of political and economic change.

The proportion of deaths in adulthood that can be put down to alcohol in Russia is staggering. A study published in The Lancet and led by the Clinical Trial Service Unit [CTSU] at Oxford University and the Russian Cancer Research Centre in Moscow has found that over half of deaths among people in their 20s, 30s and 40s in Russia are caused by alcohol. This can be from alcohol poisoning, accidents, violence, or through diseases strongly related to alcohol, such as TB, pneumonia, pancreatitis or liver disease.

Professor Sir Richard Peto, who led the statistical analysis of the data at CTSU, said: ‘If current Russian death rates continue, then about 5 per cent of all young women and 2 per cent of all young men will die before age 55 years from the direct or indirect effects of drinking.’

The graph shows Russian death rates dropping when alcohol consumption fell by a quarter in 1985 under President Gorbachev’s 1985–8 anti-alcohol laws. They doubled between 1988 and 1994 when they reached a peak before the Russian economy collapsed. Since then, the death rates have varied but remained high.

There is some hope in these observations. As Professor Peto says, ‘This shows that when people who are at high risk of death from alcohol do change their habits, they immediately avoid most of the risk.’