Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Alcohol Abuse in Russia Taking Alarming Toll on Public Health

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Alcohol Abuse in Russia Taking Alarming Toll on Public Health

Article excerpt

Dima is 5 but has only just begun to speak. He parrots words but seems to understand little of what is said to him. He walks on tiptoe, and his hooded eyes, eyebrows and mouth all slant downward, pulling his tiny face into an unhappy crescent moon.

A child of the new Russia, Dima has been cursed by this nation's ancient, now resurgent enemy: alcoholism.

Born to an alcoholic father and a hard-drinking mother in a period when vodka was cheaper and more available than at any time in Soviet memory, Dima has lived at Children's Home No. 12 since he was 2 weeks old. Doctors say his deformed features and severe mental retardation are classic signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. No one knows how many alcohol-damaged babies are born every year in Russia, but experts agree that alcohol consumption has climbed steeply in recent years.

Vodka has long been the scourge of Russia. Heavy drinking was usually celebrated, sometimes bemoaned but mostly ignored by czars and Bolsheviks alike.

In Moscow alone, 139 drunks have frozen to death since the weather turned cold early in November, the city health department reported.

Most of the casualties were picked up from the streets, railway stations or apartment stairwells, a spokesman said.

President Boris N. Yeltsin's 4-year-old government has been especially tolerant, allowing cheap, potent spirits to be sold virtually unregulated.

Public health officials now have begun to point to alcohol abuse as a key factor in an alarming decline in public health since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That decline is fueled not only by drinking but also by a host of other problems that make the new Russia an ailing society: smoking, unhealthy diets, chemical and radioactive pollution, widespread contamination of drinking water, infectious diseases, a general decline in health care, increasing violence and stress and despair from the economic and social convulsions of the past five years.

Child mortality is more than twice as high as in Western countries. Congenital birth defects are increasing, and last autumn only 20 percent of first-graders were found completely healthy.

Russian women are dying of cancer at more than double the American rate. More than half of the increase in male mortality can be attributed to cardiovascular diseases, in which alcohol and tobacco play lethal roles, said Vladimir Shkolnikov of the Center for Demography and Human Ecology.

An additional 20 percent of the deaths are caused by accidents, suicide and alcohol poisoning from contaminated or poor-quality spirits. Murder has jumped nearly fivefold since 1970.

Shkolnikov blames the Russian custom of quaffing straight vodka with a minimum of "zakuski," or snacks, for causing quick inebriation and loss of self-control, which in turn explains the high rate of accidents and violence among drinkers. …

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