Russia has a significant life expectancy gap between men and women; one of the key reasons why Russian men die earlier is excessive consumption of alcohol, particularly vodka.
In recent decades, however, vodka has become less popular among younger Russians who now tend to prefer beer.
Evgeny Yakovlev and Lorenz Kueng examined male alcohol consumption trends in the USSR and modern Russia and found that a decrease in vodka consumption may cause the country’s male mortality to drop by a third over the next two decades, even if public policies concerning alcohol availability remain the same.
The researchers reviewed data from the HSE's Russia Longitudinal Monitoring Survey (RLMS-HSE) and presented their findings at the RLMS-HSE international conference hosted by the HSE and also published them in the latest preprint 'How Persistent Are Consumption Habits?'
Between 2000 and 2009, the average male life expectancy in Russia stood at 60 years; 15 years less than in the U.S., seven years less than in Bangladesh, and four years less than in North Korea. Russia also has the biggest difference in life expectancy between men and women – the latter outlive men by 13 years on average (data for the same period of 2000 to 2009). In the three countries featured here for comparison, male and female life expectancies are much closer, the difference being seven years in the U.S. and North Korea and just one year in Bangladesh.
It is well known that alcohol consumption contributes significantly to male mortality in Russia: according to research, some 40% of all deaths each year are associated with alcohol, not just the fatal health consequences of alcoholism such as alcohol poisoning, liver cirrhosis, etc., which account for just 7% of all deaths; in addition, more than 30% of deaths are caused by road accidents, violent crimes and other occurrences resulting from alcohol consumption.
However, Yakovlev and Kueng expect male deaths from alcohol to decline in Russia, due to changes in alcohol consumption patterns over the past few decades. While the choice of alcoholic beverages, including samogon and other home brews, was extremely limited in the USSR and particularly during Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign, since then the situation has changed dramatically and multiple varieties of elite alcohol, wine and beer have become available, replacing vodka as the alcoholic drink of choice.
Yakovlev and Kueng have examined how alcohol consumption preferences changed between the Soviet times and post-Soviet period. Most Russian men born in the 60s and earlier who lived their formative years in the Soviet Union continue to prefer vodka. According to Yakovlev and Kueng, vodka lovers from this age cohort account for more than 60% of all male consumers of alcohol in Russia. In contrast, younger generations are less likely to prefer vodka – just 48% of men born in the 70s and even fewer born in the 80s and 90s – 32% and 19%, respectively. Beer consumption for the same age groups stands at 20%, 36%, 56% and 68%, respectively.
Traditionally, vodka is considered more dangerous than beer, and not only because it can be of questionable quality. Studies show that alcohol poisoning usually results from excessive consumption rather than poor quality of alcohol, and that vodka lovers are more likely to drink excessively.
Thus, men who prefer beer have a lower risk of dying – a hypothesis confirmed by regression analysis, according to Yakovlev, who notes higher mortality rates in vodka consumers of the same age.
The researchers conclude, optimistically, that even if the current alcohol prices and alcohol-related policies remain the same, male mortality in Russia may decrease by a third over the next two decades as vodka continues to lose popularity.
Even though in his earlier reports, Yakovlev suggested that measures such as raising the price of vodka and keeping the price of beer relatively low could help reduce male mortality, this issue is complicated considering the dangers of beer alcoholism and excessive alcohol consumption among marginalised populations. In addition to this, studies confirm that cheap counterfeit alcohol continues to be consumed in Russia, and raising the price of vodka may cause less educated and poorer consumers to switch to counterfeit liquor rather than beer.