Vodka bingeing blamed for startlingly high early death rate of Russian men


Russian men who down large amounts of vodka — and too many do — have an “extraordinarily” high risk of an early death, a new study says.

Researchers tracked about 151,000 adult men in the Russian cities of Barnaul, Byisk and Tomsk from 1999 until 2010. They interviewed them about their drinking habits and, when about 8,000 later died, followed up to monitor their causes of death.

The risk of dying before age 55 for those who said they drank three or more 500-ml bottles of vodka a week was a shocking 35 percent. The study was published Thursday in the journal Lancet.

Overall, about 25 percent of Russian men die before reaching 55, compared with 7 percent of men in Britain and less than 1 percent in the United States. The life expectancy for men in Russia is 64 years — placing it among the lowest 50 countries in the world in that category.

It is not clear how many Russian men drink three bottles or more a week. Lead researcher Sir Richard Peto of Oxford University said the average Russian adult drinks 20 liters of vodka per year while the average Briton drinks about three liters of spirits.

“The rate of men dying prematurely in Russia is totally out of line with the rest of Europe,” Peto said. “There’s also a heavy drinking culture in Finland and Poland, but they still have nothing like Russia’s risk of death.”

Alcohol has long been a top killer in Russia, and vodka is often the drink of choice, available cheaply and often homemade in small villages. Previous studies have estimated that more than 40 percent of working-age men in Russia die because they drink too much, including using alcohol that is not meant to be consumed, like that in colognes.

Drinking is so ingrained in Russian culture there is a word that describes a drinking binge that lasts several days: “zapoi.”

Other experts said the Russian preference for hard liquor is particularly dangerous. “If you’re drinking vodka, you get a lot more ethanol in that than if you were drinking something like lager,” said David Leon at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

He said changing drinking patterns in Russia to combat the problem is possible but that it will take significant cultural adjustments.