Counterfeit alcohol has long been a problem in Russia and residents in many less affluent communities are tempted by the less-costly alternatives to established brands. However, this demand has stoked the production of bootleg vodka which bypasses safety checks and can often turn out to be deadly.
Such was the case in a recent episode in which has so far claimed the lives of 34 victims, with a further 25 admitted to hospital with alcohol poisoning, Republic World reported. This latest incident took place in the Orenburg region in central Russia and has echoes of a severe case in 2016 in which more than 70 people died.
Initial reports of poisoning came on Thursday 7 October with the first casualties reported on Friday by the regional investigative department, which announced that 17 individuals had died. The death toll continued to rise over the weekend, with victims aged between 36 and 79. Regional health minister Tatiana Savinova said that post mortem tests showed “pure methanol, a deadly poison” in the blood of the deceased.
A subsequent police investigation discovered a warehouse manufacturing plant in which over 600 litres of alcoholic spirits were seized. A further 1,279 bottles of counterfeit alcohol were discovered in the region during two days of widespread checks. Police arrested nine people have been arrested, eight of whom are now detained in jails.
Drinking has long been part of Russia's social fabric with the nation historically having one of the highest consumption rates in the world. In 2003, Russia reached its peak alcohol consumption with an average of 20.4 litres pure ethanol per capita.
Unsurprisingly, this deep-rooted cultural tendency has considerable health impacts. Also in 2003, alcohol was the suspected cause of over half of deaths among working-age men, according to a study by The Lancet.
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Vodka is the dominant beverage that fuels alcoholism in Russia and a study by The Lancet estimated that in 2011, vodka was accounted for over 65% of alcohol intake. The recent spate of deaths were all caused by counterfeit vodka.
Since 2011, the Russian authorities have introduced considerable measures to reduce the alcohol intake of citizens. These have included price increases, limits to alcohol availability, and stricter marketing regulations.
These efforts have lead not only to significant reductions in alcohol-related deaths, the average alcohol intake per capita has also fallen greatly from the 2003 peak and was reported to be 11.7 litres pure alcohol in 2017 – still one of the highest in the world but a notable reduction nonetheless.