WASHINGTON, February 2, 2014—A new study published Thursday in The Lancet found that Russian men who drink large quantities of vodka face a significantly higher risk of early death.
The study also found that when Russian men stop drinking vodka, death rates drop almost immediately. While the same trend was found in Russian women, it was not as pronounced, probably because vodka is still considered a man’s drink.
Russian men die young. Russia’s life expectancy for men—63 years—is among the lowest in the world. (In the U.S., male life expectancy is 76 years; in the U.K. it is 79, according to the World Bank.) Almost 25 percent of Russian men die before the age of 55. This is an extraordinary statistic when compared to just one percent of men in the U.S and seven percent in the U.K.
Russians also drink a lot of vodka. On average, Russians drink 20 liters of vodka per person per year, according to Sir Richard Peto Oxford University professor and study co-author. This is also remarkable when compared to 3 liters of spirits for adults in the U.K.
The study, co-authored by Dr. David Zaridze of the Russian Cancer Research Center of Moscow, followed over 200,000 individuals in three Russian cities for over a decade, tracking their drinking habits, health and cause of death.
Dr. Zaridze and colleagues identified excess vodka use in deaths related to accidents, suicides, and acts of violence (fights) as well as eight separate disease groups associated with heavy drinking including liver disease and liver cancer, tuberculosis, and pancreatic disease. Researchers then calculated the relative risks of vodka consumption and mortality.
The study found that Russian males who consumed three or more half-liter bottles of vodka per week were at much greater risk for death from external forces or one of the alcohol related diseases than men who drank less or not at all. For men between the ages of 35 and 54 who consumed three or more bottles per week, the 20-year risk of death was a staggering 35 percent. For those age 55 to 74 the risk jumped to 64 percent.
Researchers blame the phenomenon largely on Russian culture, where long binges and extremely heavy drinking are commonplace and socially acceptable, especially among men. Others add that Russians also have a preference for hard liquor, which makes drinking more dangerous.
“If you’re drinking vodka you get a lot more ethanol in that than if you were drinking something like lager,” says David Leon, epidemiology professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to The Guardian.
The study also found surprising correlations between Russia’s mortality rates and changes in government alcohol policy. For example, a 25 percent drop in alcohol use and a noticeable drop in death rates accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1985 policies cutting vodka production and prohibiting its sale before lunch. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought vodka prices down considerably and as drinking jumped back up, so did death rates.
“When President Yeltsin took over from President Gorbachev, the overall death rates in young men more than doubled,” said Prof. Peto. “This was as society collapsed and vodka became much more freely available.”
Since stricter alcohol legislation was passed in 2006, including higher taxes and restrictions to sales, researchers say that male mortality before the age of 55 has fallen from 37 percent to the current 25.
The fact that many of the heaviest drinkers were also smokers only aggravated the risk, said the researchers.
While a change is not impossible, study authors believe that significant change will be difficult because drinking vodka is part of Russian culture and lifestyle. However, the benefits could be significant.
“People who drink spirits in hazardous ways greatly reduce their risk of premature death as soon as they stop,” said Dr. Zaridze.
The research was supported by the U.K. Medical Research Council, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research U.K., the European Union and the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer.