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It's a widely held stereotype that Russians drink a lot of alcohol.

Is there any research supporting or refuting this belief?

Possible metrics I can think of (though you're welcome to add more) can be:

  • Average volume of alcoholic drinks consumed in a year per capita. Ideally somehow normalized for alcohol content.

  • % of population medically classified as suffering from alcoholism

  • Mortality directly or indirectly attributable to alcohol (this one is tricky to get right I guess)

I'm fine with studies assuming either of definitions of "russian" that you want to pick - ethnically russian people; population of current Russian Federation, population of former USSR.

Don't care if the study includes/excludes expatriates/emigrants, but would ESPECIALLY be interesting to see a study covering differences between those and people living in Russia.

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Just answered -- used your first metric, simply because a handy WHO report existed... which also handily bases its values on % of pure alcohol per beverage type :) –  Hendy Jul 14 '11 at 21:17
    
I picked Mihai's answer as accepted, but it was pretty much a tie as far as the choice - both answers are great. –  DVK Jul 15 '11 at 12:10
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3 Answers 3

up vote 24 down vote accepted

According to existing evidence, it is true that Russians drink a lot of alcohol.

1. Adult Per Capita Consumption

The World Health Organization 2011 Global status report on alcohol and health provides us with statistics in regard to average alcohol consumption per year, for people aged 15 and above, in liters of pure alcohol. Russia ranks fourth, with 15.76 liters ( of which 6.88 liters are consumed in the form of "spirits" ), more than double the world average - 6.13.

2. Alcoholism

The report provides no information specifically about alcoholism prevalence in Russia, but using The Global Information System on Alcohol and Health ( http://www.who.int/globalatlas/alcohol ) shows Russia as having the highest rate of males aged between 18 and 65, which are dependent on alcohol: 17.61%

3. Mortality

The report tells us that Russia has one of the highest proportion of alcohol-attributable mortality, but doesn't give precise numbers - most of the data in this report is given by WHO subregion. According to Wolfram Alpha, 8327 deaths per year occur due to alcohol use disorders - 0.35% of the total, much higher than the world probability of 0.16%.

However, this figure doesn't seem to be accurate according to the WHO report - which, although it doesn't give exact numbers, does say:

By far the highest proportion of alcohol-attributable mortality is in the Russian Federation and neighbouring countries, where every fifth death among men and 6% of deaths among women are attributable to the harmful use of alcohol.

enter image description here

From the map above, we can estimate the minimum number of alcohol-attributable deaths to 10% of Russia's 2010 deaths ( 2028516 ), which gives us ~200.000, and the maximum ( 1/5 of the total ) to ~400.000. In 2004, 3.8% of all global deaths were attributable to alcohol, 6.2% for men and 1.1% for women.

As for the ethnic identity of the drinkers, from this study:

Ethnic identity of drinkers cannot be established on the basis of available state statistics and, to the best of my knowledge, neither state statisticians nor academic analysts have ever looked at ethnic differentials in per capita consumption of alcohol. These differentials are, however, significant and cannot be disregarded in any serious analysis of the alcohol situation in the country. According to my rough estimates people of the Muslim culture consume on a per capita basis slightly less than half of the alcohol consumed by Slavs and other ethnic groups in Russia.11 As the result, regions of Russia in which Muslims constitute a significant part of the population show lower incidence of alcohol-related mortality and morbidity and socially disruptive alcohol abuse.

And:

The high-risk groups are mainly adult male Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians) and the main explanation of alcohol abuse is not only the relatively high level of overall consumption of alcohol, but the high share of alcohol consumed in the form of vodka and samogon, as can be seen in Table 8-3. Drinking vodka results in faster intoxication, more frequent violence, and more serious somatic effects, particularly accidents of different types and fatal alcohol poisonings (see Section 5 below), than drinking wine or beer. A second, equally important factor is the mode of drinking prevalent among Slavs, which characteristically consists of "drinking binges"--the intermittent consumption of large quantities of alcohol in a relatively short period of time and often without accompanying meals. It should be noted that a small group of Russian alcohol specialists have long suggested that total alcohol prohibition is fruitless and that the most promising policy would be to educate the public in "civilized" drinking. This position was never popular in the Soviet Union and its proponents had been all but silenced during Gorbachev's anti-drinking campaign.

In conclusion, it would appear that the widely held beliefs hold true - Russian do drink a lot, much more than the world average. It appears to be a huge problem for the country, and for many of countries that were part of USSR. Medvedev called Russia's drinking problem a "national disaster".

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NPR recently did a segment on this, I believe it was the show, "The World". They interviewed several individuals who had been trying to do business in Russia and they all said that not only did the Russians drink almost constantly, but they expected their business partners to do so and would look down on you if you didn't. –  M. Werner Jul 15 '11 at 3:25
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Great part about alcoholism and about form of alcohol input (hard drinks), which both I think are a much more important indications of unhealthy drinking than the average consumption itself. –  Suma Jul 15 '11 at 7:14
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One example I am familiar with: Czech republic has a lot higher average consumption than Slovakia, but most of the alcohol in Cz is in beer, while in Slovakia most of there is very high share of "hard drinks (like Slivovitz) - and there are a lot more social problems connected with drinking in Slovakia. –  Suma Jul 15 '11 at 7:22
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It causes more social problems if you get drunk once per month, then if you drink a glass on wine with each meal, even if the total alcohol content can be a lot bigger in the second case. While it is possible to drink even hard liquors wisely, I would consider their consumption to be a better indicator of pathological drinking than the pure alcohol content. There might be even better indicators, like the other points mentioned in the question. This answer handles this all, which is why I prefer it over the one you have mode. –  Suma Jul 15 '11 at 14:17
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A Russian colleague once told me: "You British could not survive Russia. Those big men who think they are hard, drinking 15 pints on Saturday night - they would be put to shame by our frail grandmothers!" –  Polynomial Jul 16 '12 at 22:23
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Yes

Russia comes in at #4 for alcohol consumption in the world based on a World Heath Organization report on alcohol published in 2011. But pretty much any country in that region is extremely close, so Russia probably enjoys a disproportionate amount of negative publicity.


HERE is a 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) report about alcohol consumption. Download it HERE and scroll down to Appendix III, Alcohol Consumption Data. Here are the countries in Russia's ballpark, rates in liters per capita for those over 15 years of age:

  • Republic of Moldova: 18.22
  • Czech Republic: 16.45
  • Hungary: 16.27
  • Russia: 15.76
  • Republic of Korea: 14.8
  • Andorra: 15.48
  • Belarus: 15.13
  • Slovania: 15.19
  • Lithuania: 15.03
  • Ireland: 14.41
  • United Kingdom: 13.37
  • Austria: 13.24

There's also a report just on the European Region (LINK) with this breakdown for the Russian Federation:

graph for Russia

Page 5 of the main report features a breakdown by world region. Check the report for all the region names and included countries, but the European region averages 12.18 liters/capita compared to the world average of 6.13. In pictures, that looks like this:

world graph of consumption

In terms of their sources, the WHO data comes from the The Global Information System on Alcohol and Health (GISAH), which the report says this about:

The GISAH is the portal to the Global Alcohol Database (GAD) which WHO has been building since 1997 through the compilation of information from published and grey literature, government documents, national statistics, national and global surveys, the industry, intergovernmental organizations, and data collection through the Global Survey on Alcohol and Health (see Box 1). Currently, GISAH encompasses more than 200 alcohol-related indicators in more than 225 countries and territories. Over time, indicators will be updated, improved and new ones added.

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+1 - Nice answer. Lovely diagrams. Good stuff. –  user2466 Jul 15 '11 at 2:49
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Not a bad answer, but I think it concentrates on average consumption too much. –  Suma Jul 15 '11 at 7:23
    
Nice answer, except for the first word. From data it seems like they are not that far from European average. –  vartec Jul 15 '11 at 9:15
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@Hendy - what Vartec said... I would adjust the summary a bit to indicate that this seems to be a regional penomenon and not purely country-specific. Excellent otherwise! +1 –  DVK Jul 15 '11 at 12:02
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No, the question is "Do Russians really drink as much alcohol as is widely believed?", and the answer to this quesition based on average consumption has to be "no", they do not drink much more than average European. –  vartec Jul 15 '11 at 14:14
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The fame comes not from how much they drink, but from how they drink. So looking at the annual average does not give you real picture, as Russian annual average (15.7L/y) is similar to European average (12.2L/y). However, if you look at the drinking patterns, Russia and Ukraine clearly stand out with the most risky ones.

drinking patterns

Patterns of drinking score (PDS)

Patterns of drinking score reflects how people drink instead of how much they drink. Strongly associated with the alcohol-attributable burden of disease of a country, PDS is measured on a scale from 1 (least risky pattern of drinking) to 5 (most risky pattern of drinking). The higher the score, the greater the alcohol-attributable burden of disease. Notably, different drinking patterns give rise to very different health outcomes in population groups with the same level of consumption. Estimating PDS: the PDS is based on an array of drinking attributes, which are weighted differentially in order to provide the PDS on a scale from 1 to 5:

  • the usual quantity of alcohol consumed per occasion;
  • festive drinking;
  • proportion of drinking events, when drinkers get drunk;
  • proportion of drinkers, who drink daily or nearly daily;
  • drinking with meals;
  • drinking in public places.

Data for 2005 on the above measures stem from survey information

Source: Global status report on alcohol and health, by WHO, p.15

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