* Cheap alcohol kills more than half Russians aged 15-54
* Russia has at least 5 million alcoholics, many more drunks
* Political will needed to stem cheap and illicit vodka
By Dmitry Solovyov
MOSCOW, June 26 (Reuters) - Cheap and illicit alcohol kills more than half Russian men and women in their most productive years and the government must act urgently to reverse the trend, a study to be published in The Lancet at the weekend said.
"Excessive alcohol consumption in Russia, particularly by men, has in several recent years caused more than half of all the deaths at ages of 15-54 years," the Lancet article said. The research conducted in three industrial cities -- Tomsk, Barnaul and Biysk -- said "excess mortality from liver cancer, throat cancer, liver disease, and pancreatic disease is largely or wholly because alcohol caused the disease that caused death".
High mortality from tuberculosis and pneumonia may be partly a result of increased exposure to infection, weak immunity, or decreased likelihood of cure, the research found.
Russia’s mortality rate in people aged 15-54 years was more than five times higher for men and three times higher for women than in Western Europe, the study showed.
Alcohol is responsible for about three quarters of the deaths of all Russian men aged 15-54 and about half of all deaths of Russian women of the same age, the data showed.
Russia must stop or tax the illicit alcohol output, the article said, adding this in turn would mean "confrontation with organised criminals and corrupt officials ... All that is needed is the political will to make public health a priority".
David Zaridze, head of the Russian Cancer Research Centre and principle author of the study, told Reuters, "Each year 1.3 million people die from cardio-vascular diseases in Russia."
"Based on our investigation, it is possible to suggest that at least a third of these deaths is linked to alcohol consumption and not to any specific heart pathology," he said.
Alcohol-related deaths also include suicides, murders, drowning and deaths in fires, he said.
A United Nations report said in April that poor diet, leading to heart disease, heavy drinking and the high incidence of violent deaths may cut Russia’s present population of some 142 million to around 131 million by 2025.
CHEAP VODKA AND POLITICAL WILL
Store shelves across Russia are laden with cheap vodka that costs between 60 roubles ($1.92) and 80 roubles ($2.56) per half litre bottle, while Russia’s illicit alcohol production is estimated to account for at least 50 percent of consumption.
Alexander Nemtsov, a department chief at the Moscow Research Institute of Psychiatry, estimated Russia’s annual consumption at 15 litres of pure alcohol per capita, including children and elderly people. This compares to just 6 litres in 1864, he said.
He estimated Russia had some 2.5 million registered alcoholics and about the same number of unregistered ones.
"Drunkards, not alcoholics, are the main threat to demography," Nemtsov told Reuters. "Heavy drinkers make up 40 percent of Russian males, but this figure may be bigger." The proportion of male and female drinkers is 4 to 1, he said.
Thirty-thousand people -- twice the number the Soviet Union lost during its 10-year war in Afghanistan -- die from alcohol poisoning in Russia each year.
Psychiatrist Nemtsov said fighting drinking in Russia was an uphill task, because cheap vodka was only part of the problem.
"Poor quality of life, cultural disadvantages, poverty and everyday stress all contribute to the problem," he said. (Editing by Louise Ireland)