Changing Behavior

ArticleLarge-1The New York Times article on vodka consumption in Russia was great. I even loved this picture that accompanied the article. Check out that nurse. Something about her hair just screams fetish.

Some stats from the article:

  • Russians consume roughly 4.75 gallons of pure alcohol a person annually. 
  • Life expectancy for Russian men is now 60 years, in part because of alcoholism.
  • alcohol was the cause of more than half of all deaths of people ages 15
    to 54, often from accidents, violence or alcohol poisoning

Russia is trying to figure out ways to curb vodka consumption in their country, but has been unsuccessful, because of the cultural attachment to the clear liquor. Some think that they would have to substantially raise the price of vodka to lead to a change in behavior. This would be a great case study for a public policy class.

Ezra Klein discussed the difficulties in creating public policy that would change American eating habits. While policy was able to deal with smoking habits, he is pessimistic that policy can be created to get people to stop eating their Cocoa Krispies.

Basic steps could be put in place. For example, food manufacturers should be stopped from making false claims about their product. They were recently forced to stop claiming that their cereal would boost immunity and stop Swine Flu. How about warning labels on Pop Tarts?


10 thoughts on “Changing Behavior

  1. I don’t see anything odd about the hair myself. The mask, a bit untypical for the US, is common for Russia, perhaps because of more (legitimate) fear of TB.
    One thing briefly touched on in the article but not made clear is that a plausible alternative would be for people to drink Beer rather than vodka, and this was happening, with young people drinking more beer and less vodka. But now there are rules put in place to make beer more expensive, harder to buy, etc. Ostensibly this is a general anti-drinking measure, especially against the young, but the changes were heavily pushed by the vodka industry, an industry that has several members in the Duma among its members.
    A serious worry about making vodka more expensive is that fake and home-brewed vodka will become even more common. (It’s pretty common now.) This stuff is stronger than normal vodka usually and often very dangerous- it leads to a huge number of poisonings each year. This happened when a semi-prohibition was put in place by Gorbachev in the late 80’s. More salient in the mind of politicians, though, is that Gorbachev’s “dry laws” destroyed his support among the public even more than economic hardship did. No one wants to fact that again.


  2. Yeah, Gorby’s antivodka campaign led to a run on sugar and an increase in deaths as people drank any sort of alcohol (think Kitty Dukakis and rubbing alcohol). In one of my college classes, there was tale about straining perfumes with coffee filters. Could have been an urban legend, but it was somewhat credible.
    What would help? Good, well-paying jobs that offered stimulation and reasons not to drink oneself into a stupor the night before. Obviously that’s hard to create and admittedly, it might not do the trick, but alcohol is a retreat from reality in Russia in addition to being a cultural trait. Putin was popular in Russia in part because of his sobriety.


  3. Assuming 12% alcohol in wine, I get that you’d need to drink about 40 bottles of wine to get 4.75 gallons of pure alcohol. (Alternatively, this would be 10 cases of weakish beer.) Which really doesn’t seem like much. Even if you figure 2/3rds of the people don’t drink, so you’ll have 120 bottles of wine for the average drinker, it still doesn’t seem like much.
    Which suggests that the problem isn’t the amount of alcohol, but who drinks it and how they drink it (from the article, apparently they drink it all at once). Which is why I hate it when people propose ‘sin’ taxes on things that most consume in moderation because a few people cannot be moderate.
    I’d much rather the stomp the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board than Kellogg’s.


  4. An old friend (the father of a student of mine) died this summer after heart surgery in Russia. He was right around 50 years old. He was a big guy and had lived a pretty rough life at times, but he stopped drinking in his 40s. I remember talking to him years ago and coming away with the impression that he really didn’t expect to live very long.
    Culturally speaking, there really isn’t a place for older Russian men. A grandma is a grandma, and there are few more useful human beings on earth than a Russian grandma, but there is no corresponding role for a Russian grandfather. People talk a lot about female poverty and the risks women in the US take by overemphasizing domestic roles, but I think that knowing that you are indispenable domestically has a certain protective power in difficult times. Here in the US as well as in Russia, men often identify totally with their occupational role (I’m a miner, I’m a logger, I’m an engineer), in a way that is very dangerous in a dynamic economy. Take the occupation away from the man, and there’s too often nothing left. He’s completely superfluous.


  5. By the way, it’s not unlikely that the young woman in the picture is a doctor, not a nurse (I don’t think they say which in the article). Medical school is a five-year academic program after high school, so even a very young woman could be a doctor.


  6. To add on to Amy P’s last bit, doctoring in Russia is a much more female profession than it is in the US. I can’t remember the stats now but I’m pretty sure it’s more than 50%, perhaps significantly more. Nurses there are also comparatively lower status than in the US as well.


  7. “To add on to Amy P’s last bit, doctoring in Russia is a much more female profession than it is in the US. I can’t remember the stats now but I’m pretty sure it’s more than 50%, perhaps significantly more. Nurses there are also comparatively lower status than in the US as well.”
    I think that’s right. I also get the feeling that US medicine delegates a lot more responsibility to nurses than some other countries do.


  8. With regard to America’s eating habits, the #1 and easiest change would be to simply stop the farm subsidies for corn that makes High Fructose Corn Syrup the cheapest option for anything that needs sweetening.


  9. MH: Depends on the size of the bottle. Your math is right if we’re talking a gallon jug of Gallo. It’s 203 of the standard 750-ml bottles of wine. That’s kind of heavy consumption (perhaps 3 glasses/day) but shouldn’t be that disruptive. I bet you’re right about the main problem being binge drinking of strong stuff.
    On the filtering perfume thing: one of my co-workers had a technician back in Russia who would drink the ethanol that microscopy samples were being dehydrated in. The radioactively labeled samples, in some cases. Alexey was fairly sure he would have died of cirrhosis before the radioactivity got him.


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