Tainted Vodka Kills Dozens as Russians Turn to Bootleg Liquor

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 2, 2006

MOSCOW, Nov. 1 -- A perennial and pernicious Russian problem -- death by vodka -- has taken on alarming dimensions in recent weeks as dozens of people have died and thousands more have been hospitalized after drinking bootleg liquor laced with brake fluid, lighter fuel, disinfectants and other poisonous agents.

"News from the regions looks more like the figures from a military campaign," Echo Moskvy radio said in a recent report.

The sudden spike in deadly vodka is being linked to a new licensing law that pushed up the price of legitimately sold alcohol this summer and led people to turn to bootleg brews, which often contain cheap, toxic ingredients.

"There has been a great increase in banned and fake alcohol products," according to a statement by the Russian general prosecutor's office, which Wednesday ordered checks of companies manufacturing alcohol products. If found, bootleg products "must be immediately seized and offenders prosecuted."

Each year in Russia, more than 42,000 people die of alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related illnesses, according to official statistics. Those numbers showed some improvement this year with 18,000 people dying from alcohol in the first six months of the year, down 4,000 from the same period in 2005, according to a letter sent to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov by senators in the upper house of parliament.

Alcohol-related deaths are a major contributing factor in a demographic crisis in Russia in which a national population of about 144 million is dropping annually by about 700,000. The life expectancy of a Russian man now stands at 59 years -- 10 years lower than that for Russian women and far below life expectancies in Western Europe and the United States.

Vodka is an enduring part of Russian life, and a bootleg version -- called Samogon -- is common in most rural areas.

Officials say fake vodka has become more common in recent months, often triggering sudden liver failure or severe liver problems.

"This is not bad alcohol; these liquids are not alcohol," Yury Ostapenko, Moscow's chief toxicologist, told the Russian news agency Interfax. "Why is this happening? Who is leading it? It is very difficult for me to make out the underlying situation."

The epidemic of poisoning has been focused in rural areas, particularly in Siberia, and most of the victims have been poor people looking for a cheap drink.

In some cases, desperate alcoholics consumed spirits that were marked as unfit for human consumption. In the town of Rzhev, west of Moscow, 11 people have died since August from drinking liquids marked as "industrial spirit."

Provincial authorities across Russia have declared states of emergencies in their regions, and they are urging people to buy only vodka with proper stamps. Hospitals in the regions have begun to report that they are running out of beds.

Supplies of genuine vodka plummeted in August, however, after authorities introduced new excise stamps for all alcohol and for a while failed to deliver the stamps necessary for legitimate sales. All across the country, merchants were forced to remove from their shelves everything from French wine to the cheapest Russian vodkas.

The new laws pushed up the price of the cheapest half-liter of legal vodka by approximately a dollar to $3.60 a bottle. It also tightened controls over the wholesale distribution of ethyl alcohol in an effort to limit supplies to bootleggers. They appear to have substituted industrial fluids that may contain alcohol but can also be extremely toxic.

The first poisonings were reported in August, and the problem appeared to reach a full-blown crisis over the past week with daily reports of new deaths and hospitalizations.

The crisis has led some politicians, including Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the lower house of parliament, to call for a state monopoly on all alcohol sales.

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