SCPR Affiliates Explore Cause of Russian Mortality Crisis (Grant Miller and Jay Bhattacharya) (Russian Mortality Crisis pdf.)
A lively public debate was sparked in 2009 over the cause of the Russian mortality crisis, which saw a 40% increase in Russian deaths as the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. A January 2009 article published in The Lancet, a major contributor to health and medical media coverage worldwide, prominently claimed that mass privatization in particular was responsible for the crisis. The article led to a lot of back and forth with famed American economist Jeffrey Sachs in public venues (Sachs was central in planning Russia's economic transition), who argued that factors other than Russia’s political and economic transition were responsible for the crisis. Ultimately, the debate was not resolved, largely because there was not a more solid empirical basis for settling it.
A current project of two Center faculty, Assistant Professor of Medicine Grant Miller and Associate Professor of Medicine Jay Bhattacharya (in collaboration with Christina Gathmann at the University of Mannheim), may shed new light on the cause of the crisis. Focusing on Russia’s rank as one of the worlds’ heaviest drinking countries, the researchers note that the surge in deaths occurred primarily among alcohol-related causes and among working-age men (the heaviest drinkers). With this evidence, they investigate a different explanation: the demise of the 1985-1988 Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign. The campaign, which was unprecedented in scale and scope, simultaneously raised the price of drinking and subsidized substitutes for alcohol consumption – and it ended shortly before Russia’s political and economic transition. To study the link between the Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia’s mortality crisis, they relate the variation in campaign intensity to the magnitude of the mortality crisis over time. Using archival sources to build a new panel data set of 77 Russian oblasts spanning 1970-2005, they first find that the campaign itself was associated with substantially fewer deaths. Focusing then on the mortality crisis directly, they find that the campaign’s end shortly before the Soviet Collapse explains between 32% and 49% of the mortality crisis—suggesting that Russia’s transition to capitalism and democracy was not as lethal as commonly suggested.