“The relationship between a Russian and a bottle of vodka is almost mystical,” claimed Richard Owen, the noted 19th century British biologist.

And indeed, vodka seems to be a fact of life in the world’s ninth most populous nation. But according to a new research, the relationship between Russians and vodka is one that needs some intervention. A large, comprehensive study confirms evidence that vodka is a major cause of the high risk of premature death in the country, where one quarter of Russian men die before age 55, reports the BBC.

“In Russia, drinking is a socially accepted way of life. Everyone drinks; educated people, not educated people, all social classes. It is accepted and appreciated," says Dr. David Zaridze, from the Russian Cancer Research Centre. “But people need to realize that alcohol kills [the] nation."

For the study, researchers from the Russian Cancer Centre in Moscow, Oxford University in the UK and the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer spent a decade tracking the drinking habits of 151,000 adults in three Russian cities.

The study found that of the 25 percent of Russian men who did not survive beyond the age of 55, most of the deaths could be linked to alcohol. And the men who drank a lot – three or more half-liter bottles of vodka a week – were much more likely to succumb before reaching 55 than those who reported drinking less than one bottle a week.

The deaths were mainly attributed to binge drinking and its deleterious effects; accidents, suicide, violence, and disease.

"High mortality absolutely is caused by hazardous alcohol consumption," says Zaridze.

The study also points out how the country's mortality rates closely follow government policies on alcohol. As restrictions are loosened, mortality rises and vice versa.

"Russian death rates have fluctuated wildly over the last 30 years as alcohol restrictions and social stability varied under Presidents Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin, and the main thing driving these wild fluctuations in death was vodka," said study co-author Prof Sir Richard Peto, from the University of Oxford.

Since 2006, vodka taxes have been raised and retail sales have been limited to licensed liquor stores only; night sales have been banned altogether.

"Since 2006 the per-capita sales of strong alcohol have declined by 33 percent," Zaridze said. "This has been followed by decrease in mortality.”

Since then, the researchers say that the proportion of men dying before they reach 55 has fallen from 37 percent to 25 percent. Yet despite that improvement, the average life expectancy for men in Russia is only 64 years, ranking among the lowest 50 countries in the world.

"Russians have always drunk a lot. They sometimes say it's because of the cold weather but this is just an excuse. This is the nation's lifestyle that needs to change,” said Zaridze

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