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MOSCOW, March 24. /ITAR-TASS/. A short while ago fifteen local residents a village in the Transbaikal Territory lost their lives to substandard bootleg alcohol. Counterfeit liquors have been in use in Russia from time immemorial. At a certain point the authorities’ efforts reduced its consumption somewhat, but continued price rises have worsened the situation again.
March 15 was a Saturday evening. A group of villagers in the Krasny Velikan community gathered for a birthday party. Especially for the occasion they had purchased a five-liter bottle from a neighbor. The bottle that the retiree woman sold her fellow villagers was labeled Deer. The seller said that it was good ethyl alcohol imported from China. After the first glass all those at the table felt unwell. Some of them died the same evening, and others a while later. Many are still in hospital. As it has turned out, the same Deer alcohol was on tables in other homes. In all, nearly 50 people were poisoned. Fifteen of them are now dead and others are still in hospital.
The affected families were far from problem ones by local standards. All those people had jobs and earned enough for a living. However, a bottle of vodka from the local liquor store for 200 rubles ($5.5) looked too expensive for them.
The tragedy in the village in Transbaikalia has drawn attention again to what sort of drinks most Russians tend to use. Over the past several years Russia’s alcohol prices have grown nearly three times. In 2010, the lowest price of a half-a-liter bottle of vodka was 89 rubles ($2.5), and on March 11 this year, 199 rubles ($5.5). As of August 1 vodka prices will go up again to 220 rubles ($6).
The new excise policy runs counter to the authorities’ previous attempts to encourage people to buy only well-distilled alcohol.
Legal alcohol production has been steady on the descent for the past few years as prices soared. Ever more retail outlets, in particular, those in remote provinces, tend to sell bootleg vodka and all sorts of liquids disguised as ethanol.
According to the chief of the Federal and Regional Alcohol Market Studies Centre, Vadim Drobiz, has said the market of surrogate alcohol over the past six years has been up from 500 million liters to 800 million liters. Surrogate alcohol, he said, is abused by more than 20 million Russians. Quite often it is high quality ethanol produced at the very same distilleries illegally. However, in many cases the bottled liquids are made on the basis of technical alcohol, not meant for internal consumption and containing harmful substances.
Substandard alcohol poisonings are quite frequent not only in low-income groups of the population, but among well-to-do customers who prefer so-called elite alcohol — whiskey, tequila, rum, gin and liquors. According to the Romir research holding, one in ten Russians in 2013 used whiskey. As a result, the sales of whiskey-looking surrogates have surged up.
According to the Federal and Regional Alcohol Markets Centre, one of three whiskey bottles on the shelves of Russian liquor stores is counterfeit. In 2013 retail sales of whiskey in Russia exceeded import by 10 million liters.
“Many wholesalers trade faked whiskey, rum, tequila and vodka almost openly,” a spokesman for a major alcohol distributor in Moscow has told the RBC Daily. “I have virtually no day without an offer to accept bootleg alcohol for marketing. The samples of counterfeit products are hardly distinguishable from the genuine products. If asked, they will be prepared to bring the whole batch with faked excise duty stamps.
In the early 1990s, the alcohol-related mortality rate reached 30,000 a year. Then there followed a decline. However, in recent years the mortality rates jumped again. According to the Moscow-based Institute of Psychiatry under the Russian Health Ministry, quoted by the daily Novyie Izvestia, Russia holds first place in the world as to the number of poisonings with surrogate alcohol, and the fatalities are estimated at 20,000 a year. In all, diseases and injuries directly or indirectly related with alcoholic intoxication kill an annual 500,000 a year — accounting for approximately a quarter of all deaths.
“The government’s new excise policies have made legal alcohol in the country more expensive. If contrasted to the minimum wage, legal alcohol in Russia sells at five or six times the price in other European countries,” the government-published Rossiyskaya Gazeta quotes Drobiz as saying. He warns that the number of consumers of counterfeit alcohol will keep growing, if the government fails to revise its policy. Higher prices will not cause consumption to go down. Instead, surrogates and fakes will phase quality products out of the market.
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