Background Russia remains in the grip of a mortality crisis in which alcohol plays a central role. In 2007, male life expectancy at birth was 61 years, while for females it was 74 years. Alcohol is implicated particularly in deaths among working-age men.
Aims To review the current state of knowledge about the contribution of alcohol to the continuing very high mortality seen among Russian adults
Results Conservative estimates attribute 31–43% of deaths among working-age men to alcohol. This latter estimate would imply a minimum of 170 000 excess deaths due to hazardous alcohol consumption in Russia per year. Men drink appreciably more than women in Russia. Hazardous drinking is most prevalent among people with low levels of education and those who are economically disadvantaged, partly because some of the available sources of ethanol are very cheap and easy to obtain. The best estimates available suggest that per capita consumption among adults is 15–18 litres of pure ethanol per year. However, reliable estimation of the total volume of alcohol consumed per capita in Russia is very difficult because of the diversity of sources of ethanol that are available, for many of which data do not exist. These include both illegal spirits, as well as legal non-beverage alcohols (such as medicinal tinctures). In 2006 regulations were introduced aimed at reducing the production and sale of non-beverage alcohols that are commonly drunk. These appear to have been only partially successful.
Conclusion There is convincing evidence that alcohol plays an important role in explaining high mortality in Russia, in particular among working age men. However, there remain important uncertainties about the precise scale of the problem and about the health effects of the distinctive pattern of alcohol consumption that is prevalent in Russia today. While there is a need for further research, enough is known to justify the development of a comprehensive inter-sectoral alcohol control strategy. The recent fall in life expectancy in Russia should give a renewed urgency to attempts to move the policy agenda forward.