December 8, 2005

Drink Less and Watch your Diet, Russians Told

By Oliver Bullough

MOSCOW -- Russians must ease back on the bottle, cut down on smoking, watch their diet and lead healthier lives if they are to reverse population decline and maintain economic growth, the World Bank said on Thursday.

In a report, the Bank said the population crisis in Russia -- which is losing around 750,000 people a year -- was affecting every aspect of national life and could negate improvements in living standards.

"Russia cannot compete economically with the other G8 countries if the demographic decline and health deficit are not addressed," Patricio Marquez, head of the World Bank's Russia Health program, told reporters in Moscow.

"According to the estimates that we have been able to prepare, if the current (mortality) level continues over the next 50 years, the total population of the Russian Federation will be reduced by 30 percent."

Russia's population started to fall sharply in the last years of the Soviet Union, and has dropped by about 6 million to 143 million since 1993.

Experts link the decline to a drop in the birth rate -- something affecting most Western nations -- combined with alarming rates of early death among working-age men, particularly as a result of drinking.

The average Russian lives for 66 years, some 12 years less than the German.


Though the report referred to the Russian's legendary fondness for vodka, it also cited excessive smoking, poor diet and low personal fitness as contributory factors.

Russia has levels of injury-related death five times higher than in the European Union, and death from non-infectious diseases like cancer and heart disease three times higher than in its wealthy Western neighbor.

Bringing mortality rates down to European levels could boost national wealth by up to 29 percent over the next two decades, said analyst Marc Suhrcke of the World Health Organization.

The Russian economy has been growing six percent annually in recent years.

"We need to invest in health. I mean not only treating people who are sick but in preventive development," Suhrcke told the news conference.

Russian officials have increasingly focused on the population crisis in recent months -- President Vladimir Putin has called it a "dreadful situation" -- but Ruslan Khalfin from the Health Ministry said they had an uphill battle.

"The population does not want to get involved with its health, sadly," Khalfin, director of the ministry's Medical Care Development department, said.

"The work will be long and complex."