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Russia's heavy drinkers turn to cleaning products over money woes

One doctor says he has noticed a “wave” of complications.

File: A Russian man drinks from a bottle standing in front of a liquor booth in a street in Moscow
File: A Russian man drinks from a bottle standing in front of a liquor booth in a street in Moscow
Image: AP/Press Association Images

AS THE ECONOMIC crisis sweeps through Russia, a dangerous trend is emerging in this heavy-drinking country: the rise in consumption of potentially lethal moonshine, medical alcohol or even cleaning products.

Layoffs, wage cuts and price increases are combining to worsen the problem of alcoholism, which has long been a major public health issue, by increasing the mix of dangerous products in the market.

Those who can no longer afford store-bought drinks are turning to “under the counter” alternatives that can cause serious damage, even death.

“Wave” of complications

Alexander Polikarpov, the head doctor of the Alcospas chain of alcohol rehab clinics in Moscow, says he has noticed a “wave” of complications in patients, such as delirium tremens — a symptom of withdrawal also known as “the shakes” — and epilepsy.

Polikarpov’s staff of up to 40 doctors specialises in providing emergency detox for drinkers whose families are desperate to end a multi-day binge.

Their patients are more likely to be vodka drinkers scaling down to low-cost, lower-quality varieties. The more desperate cases of alcoholics using industrial products tend to occur in more remote, rural regions.

A number of patients who previously could afford expensive spirits are now forced to reorient in the sense that they use cheaper and lower-quality spirits.

Sales of legal beer and vodka have fallen sharply as prices rise, buoyed in part by the rising cost of imported ingredients after the ruble’s value tumbled last year.

Analysts say falling sales likely don’t mean that demand is falling, simply that it is being pushed into an illegal and dangerous black market.

Illegal alternatives

Illegal Alcohol Russia, 1999: A special storage for keeping confiscated illegal alcohol products Source: ¬.—‡ˇÔËÌ

The alternatives to increasingly costly legal alcohol are many and varied. At the safer end of the scale is vodka production diverted and sold on the side by workers at legitimate distilleries, but some products, such as industrial spirits or moonshine made by inexperienced or unscrupulous distillers, can be lethal.

Some of the most harmful yet popular alternatives to legal alcohol are liquids designed “for hair growth or for cleaning the bath,” says market analyst Vadim Drobiz.

Sales of beer, Russia’s most popular alcoholic drink, were down 10.5 percent year-on-year by volume in January, according to figures from Nielsen Russia.

The beer market remained stable by value because prices rose to a new high, Nielsen spokesperson Ekaterina Lukina told The Associated Press.

Vodka, which is more popular among older drinkers, continued a long-term decline in sales, which fell 17.6 percent by volume and two percent by value.

That drop is mainly due to government actions to combat alcoholism by instituting a legal minimum price for vodka. While that minimum of 185 rubles ($2.96) for a half-litre bottle is low by European standards, it is costly for low-earning Russians in the poverty-stricken provincial towns where moonshine is most popular.

Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin ordered the minimum price cut by 16 percent. While the move was celebrated in Russian media, it did not fully reverse last year’s 29 percent rise, never mind similar hikes in previous years.

Alcohol consumption

RUSSIA ALCOHOL DEATHS In this Sept. 2005 file photo, unidentified men sleep with bottles of drink near-at-hand, on a bench in Moscow Source: AP/Press Association Images

Russians consume the fourth-highest amount of alcohol per capita in the world, according to World Health Organisation data from 2010, the last year for which statistics are available, and alcohol has been a thorny issue for countless Russian governments.

In the czarist era, moonshine producers undermined the vast and hugely profitable state monopoly on vodka production.

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By the mid-1980s, alcoholism was wrecking the productivity of the Soviet economy to such an extent that then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched a crackdown on vodka sales. Three years of public discontent and a moonshine boom followed before the policy was abandoned.

The most affected regions are typically poor and remote, often where Soviet-era factories have shut down, Drobiz says. He noted moonshine trade is independent of religion — Russia’s Muslim regions have plenty of illegal alcohol production.

Home distilling

RUSSIA ALCOHOL A worker checks the labels on vodka bottles at Moscow's distillery plant Kristall in Moscow Wednesday, Oct. 25, 1995. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Unusually for an industrialised nation, home distilling for personal consumption is legal in Russia and does not require a license, giving rise to an entire industry focused on the moonshine market.

Not all moonshine is a cheap and dangerous product, however.

In fact, making old-fashioned Russian moonshine, known as samogon, is a traditional activity for Russians at their dachas — country cabins. Legally produced samogon-style spirits have even become something of a cult drink in some of Russia’s hipster bars.

Rishat Ibatullin from the central city of Kirov runs an online retailer selling stills to Russia’s army of moonshine makers and says sales are rising.

He suspects some of his customers are setting up illegal businesses, but is keen to portray distilling as an honourable hobby.

“People do it to get a product where they know what it’s made from and how it’s made,” Ibatullin said.

Read: Addicts drinking hand sanitiser to get alcohol fix>

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