Russia's Biggest Problem ISN'T Putin

Jul 19 2017

Russia’s Biggest Problem ISN’T Putin

For all his meddling, threats and imperious rhetoric, Putin has certainly cast a pall over what it must be like to be a Russian in today’s political climate. But average Russians, the same as average Americans, probably aren’t nearly as concerned with politics as they are with day to day pressing issues. Russia is home to 140 million consumers , is the most prosperous of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and has one of the world’s largest middle class. But for all its wealth and resources, Russia’s biggest problem by far, is a social one, alcoholism.

The stereotypical view of an average Russian tossing down shots of vodka is in many ways not off the mark and there has been a heavy price to pay. In 2012, the percentage of alcohol-related mortalities was a whopping 30.5 percent, as related to 3.2 percent in the United States.  When you add in deaths attributed to tobacco use, the combined death toll is about one million per year. However, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune, Putin is doing something about that.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2011, the life expectancy for Russians was 69 years old, but in 2013, Putin commanded the government to raise the life expectancy age to 74 by the year 2018 and took several calculated steps to ensure its success. Some of the ways the government is making war on addiction, and alcoholism in particular, is to put sales restrictions and higher taxes on alcohol. Unlike other countries, Russians drink higher quantities of spirits, rather than wine or beer, and this factor has lead to far more overdose deaths, so, the government has taxed ethanol and restricted hours when hard liquor could be sold.

Even so, addiction remains a prevalent problem. I recently spoke to a doctor from the Mayo Clinic, whose daughter, also a doctor, was stationed for a few years in Moscow. She said that the medical community was practically “giving up on” the adult generation in regards to continuing addiction and overdose deaths. Their goal was to focus on younger people who at least had the chance of not following in their parent’s footsteps.

A big part of the problem is that Russian culture itself dictates a certain amount of drinking and to abstain can even be seen as rude. I have had many Russian friends over the years, and whether it was a birthday party or just an ordinary dinner, shots of vodka or other spirits were called for all throughout the evening. This is the main kind of social activity on a day to day basis and an average Russian dinner can last one to four hours, so you can only imagine how much alcohol can be consumed in that amount of time.

Another obstacle to long-term sobriety in Russia is that treatment programs for addiction are dismal at best. According to alcoholrehab.com, “public and private treatments offered to drug or alcohol addicts in Russia are typically harsh, painful and brutal with very little adequate support or healthcare provided.” And, in true totalitarian style, individuals can be forcibly committed to treatment by law enforcement or family members. Once enrolled in a treatment program, patients are forced to go through detoxification in isolation and without any medications to help them through it.  People can also forever be labeled a “black sheep” of society, because anyone going through a detoxification program is put on a national register, which monitors them for years afterward.

AA 12-Step meetings have not caught on in Russia either. Although AA boasts a membership of over 2 million worldwide, there are only about 400 meetings in the whole country of Russia. There are several theories as to why AA hasn’t taken off. First, Russians tend to be suspicious of anything “western” and they reason that AA is an American institution and can’t really be trusted. Russians also tend to classify only the “worst” drinkers in the country as alcoholics, those lying in an alley, homeless, or suffering from the shakes every morning. Because Russians classify only these types of people as alcoholics, they question how this group could actually help one another in an AA setting.

Another typical form of treatment for alcoholism that has taken root in Russia without much success is the combination of providing Antabuse, a drug that is taken daily and causes nausea or headaches if alcohol is ingested, and hypnosis. The hypnosis is called, “coding” simply involves implanting the idea that they can never drink again. As anticipated, this kind of treatment is usually short-lived.

So, Putin has his work cut out for him when it comes to combating alcoholism in his country, but at least he is trying to do something about the nation’s biggest health crisis. Average life expectancy in Russia is up to 71.9 years, so Putin is making progress, but until cultural norms are changed and without a serious overhaul of his country’s treatment methods, the hope for lasting improvement is pretty dire.