The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Democracy link in long life spans

New Delhi, Sept. 25: Collapse of communist regimes in central and eastern Europe has added years to people’s lives, a health expert from the region believes.

Professor W. Zatonski, chief adviser to the Polish government, feels changing food and lifestyle habits after the fall of communist regimes have drastically reduced mortality rates.

“After 1990, there has been a marked increase in life expectancy both among males and females in Poland and Russia,” Zatonski said while delivering a lecture in Delhi today on the role of democracy in increasing life expectancy in eastern Europe and Russia.

Zatonski said the mortality rate among middle-aged people was extremely high in Poland and Russia before 1990 when the red flag was flying over the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The most common causes of premature death were lung cancer, liver cirrhosis and accidental injuries. “Smoking caused lung cancer, alcohol abuse, liver cirrhosis, drunken falls, accidents and fatal injuries,” he said.

“In Poland, we brought a drastic turnaround in the mortality rate by strictly implementing a stringent anti-tobacco law. There is now less exposure to tobacco and, as a result, fewer incidents of lung cancer.” He also warned India, saying tobacco seemed to be the number one risk in this country, too.

The health expert blamed communist politicians in east Europe and the erstwhile Soviet Union for being indifferent to public health. “It is dangerous for the public if politicians do not have any concern for public health,” he said.

The communist regimes, he argued, subsidised food that was injurious to the health of the people. “An enormous amount of subsidy was doled out for butter, sausage and all kinds of meat. There was no concept of vegetable oil which is good for health,” Zatonski said.

According to him, liberalisation also played a key role in promoting public health. “For instance, subsidies were withdrawn. Big companies started coming to Poland. The consumption of vegetable oil increased and the sale of butter fell,” he said. The lower middle class and the poor preferred to buy vegetable oil, which was marketed at a cheap rate. “This is my hypothesis for a change of food habit and better life expectancy,” the expert added.

Zatonski had a word of praise for Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who ushered in Glasnost and Perestroika and changed the face of the Soviet Union. “He was the first politician to recognise alcohol abuse as a big problem in the Soviet Union. In fact, he wanted to bring a law prohibiting alcohol. There would have been important social changes in the country had he not been ousted,” he said.

The health expert felt that in most countries, particularly in the developing world, there is a double burden on the public — one of communicable infectious diseases and the other of non-communicable diseases.

“Non-communicable diseases are no less dangerous. There is a danger to your life if you smoke or become overweight. Obesity is a major problem in the United States as well as Poland,” Zatonski said.

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