Vladimir Putin may have won some support with his plan to cut prices for alcohol and may even keep part of Russia so drunk that it will not challenge him, but four Moscow experts say that cutting alcohol prices will increase the number of deaths among Russians and undermine the future of Russia, whatever the Kremlin leader says.
Russian rulers have long known that making alcohol more difficult to obtain by price or other means is an easy way to generate public anger and even opposition, and some of them when times get tough are even inclined to cut prices as a way of winning cheap popularity.
But the costs of doing so are extremely high and include both driving up mortality rates among working-age men and thus driving down Russia’s population, according to Yuliya Zinkina, Andrey Korotayev, Sergey Rybalchenko, and Darya Khalturina of the Higher School of Economics.
Russia has achieved significant successes in reducing mortality among adult males and thus boosting life expectancy in the period since 2005, but this was achieved, the four say, “primarily as the result of reducing mortality from causes linked to alcohol.” Indeed, they say, the improvements recalled those achieved by Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign.
And conversely, the scholars argue, statistical analysis shows that “a significant increase in the production (and consumption) of alcohol in [Russia] leads to an immediate and significant increase in mortality rates.”Cutting the minimum prices for vodka “will not only increase access to cheap vodka,” they point out, but will open the way to black market production who don’t pay taxes” and thus the government will lose money as well as lives. And they say that Putin’s move will have such an immediate impact that there will be statistically significant consequences by next month.
Tragically, the shift to what can only be called a pro-alcohol policy is to be found not just in this decree or in Russia but in the draft program for the Eurasian Economic Union which contains provisions that are beneficial only to alcohol producers who want unrestricted access to markets.
And Putn’s action has prompted a number of Duma deputies to propose expanding the trade in alcohol, something that runs against the recommendations of the World Health Organization and will have the most dire consequences for the population. Meanwhile, the Russian government is planning to lift restrictions on telephone and Internet sales of alcohol as well.
What will this mean? the four researchers ask. If Russia continued with the policies in place before Putin’s decree, they estimate that the Russian population would be 146.3 million in 2020 and 142 million. If his decree stands, those figures will be respectively 2.3 million and 5.5 million fewer, with most of the losses being among working-age men.
Moreover, if Putin’s decree stands, the projected life expectancy of Russians will not rise to 74 as he called for in his message to the Federal Assembly but be seven or eight years fewer than that in 2018.
In addition to the human costs of such a development, the four say, “those results will practically reduce to nothing all the demographic achievements of the last few years, which are one of the most important achievements of Russia under President Putin and one of the chief indicators of the development of the country in the 2000s.”
What Moscow should be doing is restricting the availability of alcohol still further rather than encouraging people to drink by cutting prices and making it easier for people to buy it. And the four conclude that it is now time to restore a state monopoly on vodka if the Russian government really cares about its own people and not just the profits of producers.