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Russia: Alcohol Reform Blamed For Outbreak Of Poisonings

A patient receives treatment in Russia last month after drinking counterfeit vodka (ITAR-TASS) Bootleg vodka and toxic alcohol-based substances have killed scores of people in Russia over the past few weeks. What many describe as the start of a sweeping epidemic appears to be connected with a recent government reform to rid shops of counterfeit spirits.

PRAGUE, October 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It kills some 40,000 people every year in Russia -- almost five per hour.

Russia's Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev has called it a "national tragedy."

And President Vladimir Putin sounded the alarm during a three-hour televised appearance on October 25.

"The profusion of poor-quality and counterfeit products on our alcohol market is a huge problem," Putin said. "And even today we have examples of poisoning of people through poor-quality alcohol. Besides inflicting huge damages on people's health, which is the No. 1 problem, it also has a very negative impact on the state of public finances."

Stamping Out The Problem

Poisoning from tainted alcohol is not a new problem in Russia. But lately, the country's hospitals have been struggling to cope with the flow of alcohol-poisoning victims.

Toxic hepatitis, a disease brought on by the consumption of poor-quality alcohol, has killed scores of Russians over the past few weeks.

Hundreds of people are currently hospitalized, many in severe condition. Doctors say toxic hepatitis, which can cause severe liver damage, is difficult to treat and often fatal.

Like many observers, Oleg Zykov, the director of the "No To Alcoholism And Drug Abuse" foundation in Moscow, is already talking about a nationwide epidemic.
In Pskov Oblast, where alcohol poisoning has killed 16 people and affected almost 450, local authorities have introduced a state of emergency.

"It is obvious that a tragedy is taking place," Zykov said. "We have seen this tragedy double, triple lately. Today, it clearly has the characteristic of a sudden epidemic, and this was to be expected. Half a year ago, when the process of changing excise stamps started, I said that the number of poisonings from surrogates would definitely grow. We will have an epidemic of poisoning from substitutes."

Under a new law introduced this year to combat bootlegging, all alcoholic beverages in Russia must now carry a new excise stamp and a barcode.

But delays and glitches during the implementation of the new rules resulted in alcoholic beverages disappearing from shelves for many weeks.

Failed Reform?

Aleksandr Nikishin, a vodka historian and director of a vodka museum in Moscow, says the spate of poisonings is a direct result of the alcohol reform.

"It all started when factories were stalled, when there were no excise stamps, when shelves and shops were empty. Some clearly saw the possibility of filling the niche of illegal manufacturer," Nikishin said. "But someone has produced a very low-quality substitute. Usually people don't get poisoned and die like that with substitutes. This is an extraordinary case."

The figures indeed look like a frontline casualty report.

In Chelyabinsk Oblast, in the Urals, poisonous alcohol has killed 70 people, and more than 1,200 have sought medical assistance over the past two months.

In Perm Krai, nine people have died and 15 are in critical condition; 30 have died in Irkutsk Oblast; 21 in Kirov Oblast; and 45 in the western Belgorod Oblast.

In Pskov Oblast, where alcohol poisoning has killed 16 people and affected almost 450, local authorities have introduced a state of emergency.

Unsavory Ingredients

For years, fake vodka producers used products containing industrial spirits such as detergents, antifreeze, and window-cleaning solutions.

A police officer inspects a haul of bootleg vodka confiscated in Belgorod Oblast last month (ITAR-TASS)

The authorities hoped that the alcohol reform, by slapping a tax on industrial spirits, would curb bootleg vodka production and bring down the number of alcohol-poisoning deaths.

But the new legislation seems to have had the opposite effect.

Pavel Shapkin, the chairman of the National Alcohol Association, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the alcohol shortage caused by the reform has prompted counterfeiters to resort to other, untaxed, spirits -- usually alcohol-based medicine and antiseptics sold in pharmacies.

Shapkin says these substances are even more toxic than industrial spirits.

"Those who produced fake vodka with antifreeze -- and this is a whole industry -- started looking for new raw material," Shapkin said. "Surrogate producers got hold of liquids that, in addition to ethyl alcohol, contain highly toxic substances. The alcohol contained in antiseptics must cost as much as much as alcohol in vodka bottles. Then nobody will dream of using this alcohol to produce substitute alcohol."

"It all started when factories were stalled, when there were no excise stamps, when shelves and shops were empty." -- vodka historian

Compounding the problem is the cheap price tag carried by a bottle of fake liquor.

With the introduction of the more expense excise stamps, which has pushed up the price of vodka and other spirits, many are seeking a cheaper substitute.

Cheap Vodka, Bad Vodka

Nikishin says the only way of reducing the number of poisoning deaths is teaching the population that cheap vodka is bad vodka.

"People simply need to be informed and explained that vodka can't be cheap, because excises are expensive," Nikishin said. "From a bottle that costs 100 rubles, the excise represents 70 rubles, the bottle with the label costs 10 rubles, the alcohol costs a little bit, the workforce also, and the rest represents a small benefit. If a bottle costs 50 or 40 rubles, you'd better run away from it."

A half-liter bottle of bootleg vodka costs as little as 20 rubles ($0.75).

By contrast, the cheapest bottle of officially approved vodka now costs 95 rubles ($3.50). The same bottle cost 65 rubles ($2.4) before the labeling reform was ushered in on January 1.