Vodka, capitalism and Russia's "mortality crisis"

When communism ended in Russia, death rates shot up: but how much of that was actually due to economic turmoil?

Via Tim Worstall, a new NBER paper argues that the massive surge in deaths after the end of communism in Russia may have a simple, single cause: "the demise of the 1985-1988 Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign."

There is no doubt that the period between 1990 and 1994 was one of extraordinary turbulence in Russia. The country experienced, in just four years, a rapid and wholesale transition from an almost entirely centralised economy to one of the freest markets in the world. The opportunism of the change was given as an archetypal example of the "Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein, in her book of the same name.

One of the key stats cited to prove the upheaval is the astonishing leap in mortality. As the authors of the paper, Jay Bhattacharya, Christina Gathmann, and Grant Miller (of Stanford university) write:

Crude death rates in Russia soared by 40% between 1990 and 1994, climbing from 11 to nearly 15.5 per thousand. By 2009 standards, the decline in male life expectancy at birth (by nearly 7 years, to 57.6) would tie Russian men with their counterparts in Bangladesh, falling short of male longevity in less-developed countries with troubled population health histories (Botswana, Haiti, North Korea, and Yemen, for example). The magnitude of this surge in deaths – coupled with the Soviet Union’s international prominence – has prompted observers to term this demographic catastrophe “the Russian Mortality Crisis.”

The immediate cause of the surge in deaths isn't economic transition, but a massive rise in alcohol consumption; the types of deaths that increased most were those related to alcoholism, like alcohol poisoning, violent deaths, heart attacks and strokes. Additionally, the deaths were concentrated amongst working age men.

What the authors argue is that, while alcoholism can of course be the result of societal factors, it also suggests that factors more directly related to drinking be examined. Their key prompt comes in the form of the following chart:

 

While the post 1990 spike is very real, the corresponding pre-1990 dip is under-explained by narratives which focus on economic upheaval. But it is potentially explained by the success, and then demise, of the USSR's "Measures to Overcome Drunkenness and Alcoholism", which "ushered in the country’s most stringent anti-alcohol policies since its 1919- 1925 prohibition".

The actual measures are fascinating, especially in the context of today's debate around minimum pricing. They addressed both supply and demand, by:

  • Reducing production of alcohol;
  • Restricting alcohol sales on business days, raising the drinking age, and banning restaurants from selling spirits;
  • Raising prices by around a quarter, then a half;
  • Introducing new sanctions for alcohol related crimes;
  • (and on the demand side) subsidising substitute activities like parks and sports clubs;
  • Propoganda and a ban on glamorous depictions of drinking;
  • And improved treatment of alcoholism.

These measures had a huge success; although the official statistics probably overstate the effect, due to the difficulty of accounting for moonshine production, they show a drop in sales of 50 per cent. That led to a continued decrease in death rates:

 

Importantly, the authors argue that the measures would take a while to unwind once the program ended in 1988, explaining the lag in time between its end and the beginning of the mortality spike.

Not every extra death is explicable by this factor; but the authors estimate that 2.15 million people in the mortality crisis died, not as a result of the larger crisis, but due to these measures being repealed.

Drink responsibly, people.

Boris Yeltsin sips some Vodka. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Jeremy Corbyn has defied the odds and embarrassed his critics

The pundits were wrong, writes Liam Young. 

On Tuesday I said that Labour would need time to show any drastic improvement in nation-wide elections. With the results now clear I still hold to that premise. After a scary result in Scotland, a ‘holding on’ in Wales and a rather better than expected showing in England it is clear that the public has produced a mixed bag of results. But for Labour, something very interesting has happened.

Before the results were announced pundits were predicting roughly 200 seat losses for the Labour party across local councils. Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s strongest opponents suggested that Labour would lose councils in the South owing to the anti-austerity message being viewed as irrelevant. There was also the suggestion that Labour would gain votes in the heartland of the North where it already controlled a great number of seats. It seemed that the pundits were wrong on both counts.

One thing is clear and undeniable. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has defied the odds at this election. It looks like the party will lose no more than 30 council seats and that its vote share on 2015 will be up by roughly 4 per cent at the expense of the Tories. People will rightly say that this is depending on the standard the results are measured by.

But I think that John McDonnell made a convincing argument last night on exactly how to judge this performance. Given that many simply want to spend time speculating about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership it seems entirely reasonable to measure Labour’s success based on the party’s movement since he became leader. As mentioned above if this is taken as the standard Labour has increased its share of the vote and has beat the Tories after being some 14 points behind in the polls just a few months ago.

Commentators were arguing even at the point of polls closing that Labour would lose control of key councils such as Southampton, Harlow, Carlisle and Nuneaton. Yes – everybody remembers Nuneaton. But these predictions proved false. Labour did not just hold on to these areas but in a great deal of them the party increased its share of the vote and indeed its share of council seats. Labour has truly defied the odds across England.

The information that was shared in the weeks before the election on Thursday suggested that with Labour’s current position in the polls it would lose 170 seats. Some went as far as to suggest we would lose towards the 300 mark given the crisis Labour found itself enveloped in during the run up to voting. Opponents were kind enough to note that if we achieved parity with the Tory vote we would only lose 120 council seats.

While any loss is regrettable I have made my view clear on why Labour faced an uphill climb in these elections. Despite the rhetoric we have lost just over 20 seats. I agree with John McDonnell’s call this morning that it is time for the ‘begrudgers’ to ‘put up or shut up’. No wonder they are being so quiet.

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.