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Russia aims to tackle its alcohol problem

The World Health Organisation (WHO) this week published its first worldwide report on non-communicable diseases.

Illnesses like cancer, heart disease and diabetes have now reached “global epidemic proportions” and account for more deaths worldwide than all the other diseases combined. The report concludes that many millions of lives could be saved if people avoided risk factors such as being overweight, smoking and drinking.

Alcohol is now believed to be responsible for nearly 4 per cent of deaths worldwide. 2.5 million people die each year from excessive consumption, not only in cases obviously linked to alcohol abuse, such as cirrhosis of the liver, poisoning, traffic accidents and violence, but also from several types of cancer where the link to excessive drinking is better understood. In its February status report on alcohol and health, the WHO also concluded that 320,000 young people (aged 15-29) are dying each year from alcohol-related causes, which equates to 9 per cent of deaths in that age group.

The problem of alcohol misuse is particularly acute in Russia, where the average Russian drinks more than twice the maximum amount considered healthy by the WHO. One in five men will die of alcohol-related causes in Russia and the Russian president admitted earlier this year that alcoholism in the country is a “national disaster”. As well as causing premature death which can leave families vulnerable, regular intoxication among adults can also seriously impair an adult’s ability to care for children and children often suffer neglect or abuse from drinkers.

There is also an increasing trend among young people towards harmful drinking. Even before the age of 15, over 10 million Russian children (10-14) are estimated to drink alcohol. The WHO recommends the raising of taxes on alcoholic beverages to curb drinking among the young. Some countries have also restricted marketing and selling activities to try and reduce under-age drinking.

In Russia, President Medvedev has introduced a program to combat the nation’s drinking, including a high-profile media campaign and strict penalties for anyone selling alcohol to minors. For the first time, beer will also be classified as an alcoholic drink rather than as a food. The president hopes these reforms will cut the nation’s per capita drinking by a quarter over the coming year. But for that to happen, Russians need to accept there is a problem in the first place. And in results of a survey published this week, 95 per cent of Russians declared themselves to be in good or fair health, despite the fact that over four-fifths were leading lives which involved up to three health risk factors (such as harmful drinking, smoking, unhealthy diet and low levels of physical activity). So it looks as if the advertising campaign on the dangers of alcohol has its work cut out.

Laurinda Luffman signature