Russian no drinking sign

If you are a regular reader, you know we’ve been hunting for happiness. But sometimes on our travels, if we look closely, we gain insights into deeply rooted cultural sources of unhappiness.

We recently introduced our Healthy Planet Index, a ranking of 141 countries that is based on a measure called happy life years—a combination of life expectancy and satisfaction with life.   For instance, in Costa Rica, life expectancy in 2005 was 78.5 years and satisfaction with life (on a scale of 0 to 10) was 8.5; we used these figures to create a Happy Life index value of 66.7, which tops the Healthy Planet Index.

As we reviewed the results, one country that caught our eye is Russia.  With 38.1 happy life years, Russia ranks 91st.  Russia is 75th when our 141 countries are ranked by happiness and 97th when they are ranked by life expectancy.  The question is, what problems are behind these low figures?

The answers are numerous.  A substandard system of medical care, the prevalence of tuberculosis (a disease of poverty) and overindulgence in alcohol are some of the bigger pieces to the puzzle.  Let’s take a closer look at alcohol.  Everyone knows the stereotype that Russians are heavy drinkers.  We did some research to see how much truth is in this generalization.  First, we’ll give you the numbers.  According to the World Health Organization in 2003, 10.3 liters of pure alcohol were consumed by each Russian person over the age of 15.  10.3 liters of pure alcohol translates into 580 shots (1.5 oz. drinks) of 80 proof vodka (and yes, we chose vodka because we‘re talking about Russia).  That’s an average of 1.6 shots per day.  It should be said that 10.3 liters was not the highest figure for a country in 2003.  In Ireland, which was at the top of the list, the average was 13.6 liters.  Russia is not the only place where lots of alcohol is consumed.  On the other hand, the situation in Russia is said to be even worse than the official numbers portray because of the large black market for alcohol.

There is more to the story than these raw numbers, and it’s something visitors to Russia should heed:  alcohol in Russia is often consumed more dangerously than in other countries.  History books, newspapers, Russian officials and ordinary Russians all say the same thing:  Russians tend to drink in binges.  And, of course, they tend to drink vodka, a highly distilled alcohol.  This is the Russian way of drinking.  And it is the kind of drinking that can kill in the span of a night.   Bootleg alcohol that has toxic ingredients is not an uncommon thing in Russia.   All of these circumstances add up to a high rate of death due to alcohol poisoning in Russia.

That’s nothing to take lightly; however, it’s the smaller, more sensational side of the story.  Much of the self-destruction from over-drinking takes more time to show.  We’re talking about heart disease, alcoholism, cancer, violence, weakened immune systems, lost days of work, to name a few.  These ills are the larger villains.

The bottom line? Russia’s problems with alcohol are real, not just stereotypical.   Russia is certainly not the only country that faces a struggle with booze (hint hint Western world). But misery with company is still misery.


About The Author

Chrissy Donovan is a guest contributor to the Healthy Travel Blog. She recently graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she majored in mathematics. While in school, she spent a semester studying in Budapest. Here, she learned firsthand some of the differences between American and Hungarian health care when she became alarmingly sick one day (but quickly recovered).

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