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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Russia Leads the World . . . in Barbaric Levels of Smoking and Drinking

Yesterday, we reported on how Russia leads the world in smoking and the adverse health consequences resulting therefrom. Today, we report on the other side of Russia's double whammy, namely booze. Paul Goble reports:

Russian adults, according to Moscow officials, currently consume some 30 liters of pure alcohol every year, a figure that is more than three times what the World Health Organization says is dangerous and one that is eight times the amount Americans drink. But because this official figure measures only officially registered distilled spirits and does not include additional liters of pure alcohol from illegally produced samogon (Russian for “moonshine”) or from what Russians call alcohol “surrogates,” the actual among of alcohol consumption among Russian adults may a third or more again higher. As a result, as members of the Duma were told this week, such high rates of alcohol consumption now play a direct or indirect role in nearly one-third of all Russian deaths and thus constitute a threat not only to popular well being but also to that country’s national security. During the course of a roundtable earlier this week, members of the Duma not only listened to reports about this general state of affairs but had their attention directed both at its specific features and what they might do to try to correct this situation.

According to the state statistical administration, something over 40,000 Russians die from alcoholism or alcohol poisoning each year, but the real impact of their heavy drinking on the country’s death rate is far larger, if not always understood or acknowledged. Sustained heavy drinking leads to a variety of illness, murders and suicides, automobile and other accidents, and the disintegration of families, and all those things in turn are behind 550,000 to 700,000 of the 2.2 million deaths recorded in the Russian Federation on average in recent years. But two additional elements to this story, the Duma deputies were told, make it especially tragic. On the one hand, Russians legally purchase 80 percent more alcohol than the country produces through their purchase of the large volume of alcoholic beverages now flooding into the country. And on the other, they drink each year “not less than 600 million liters” of samogon, according to the Interior Ministry which is able to seize only about one percent of this amount, as well as unknown amounts of other surrogates like perfume or industrial fluids not intended for human consumption.

In relatively well-off Moscow, Russian experts say, illegally produced samogon and surrogates of one kind or another probably account for only about one-quarter of total amount offered for sale, but in poorer and more isolated regions of the country, that figure may now have reached the far more dangerous level of 40 or even 50 percent. Although this does not appear to have been mentioned at the Duma meeting, that pattern is behind one slightly more optimistic prediction: As Russians become relatively better off because of higher oil prices, they drink more vodka but less samogon and surrogates, and thus they are less likely to die as a result. That conclusion was first advanced by Russian demographers in the so-called Izhevsk study last year and reinforced by the subsequent experience of Pskov oblast.

Despite the comment of one participant at the roundtable that “laws do not work” in this sphere in Russia, the parliamentarians discussed what they might do legislatively. Among their ideas: raising the drinking age to 21, banning alcohol advertising, forced treatment of alcoholism, and a state monopoly on alcohol production. Both individually and collectively these measures would have some impact on the amount of alcohol Russians consume and thus on the health of that nation, but many of the problems Russia faces now as in the past are the result of efforts by individual drinkers to get around just such laws, be they tsarist, Soviet or Russian. And there is even the danger that such legislation, however attractive its staated purposes may be, could in fact make the situation worse by driving even more Russians away from officially produced and in smaller amounts relatively safe distilled spirits and toward more dangerous samogon and surrogates.


Artfldgr said...

Whats more interesting is the source of much of the "moonshine". in the americas, they would buy sugar and start with a corn base (corn squeezins), vodka is basically the same from a potatoe base.

sugar is too expensive to be used to make moonshine in russia, so they smuggle it in.

federal agents said they also came across a bit of criminal enterprise that for pure creative corruption struck them as remarkable: a loose-knit web of companies was smuggling tens of millions of gallons of American-made grain alcohol -- including some from one of the country's oldest distilleries -- to Eastern Europe to slake a seemingly boundless thirst for that most Russian of spirits, vodka.

The smuggling genius, such as it was, lay in the fact that the 192-proof alcohol from America's heartland was disguised with dye and shipped in giant containers marked as windshield-wiper fluid, cologne, mouthwash and cleaning solvent.

Once in Russia, the smugglers, using a chemical formula provided in some cases by an American distiller, removed the coloring, diluted the grain alcohol with water and sometimes added what the federal authorities said was vodka flavoring. The product, which was then distributed by groups controlled by the Russian mob, thus evaded millions of dollars in import taxes and tariffs.

The reconstituted mouthwash and cleaning solvents -- investigators said that when the dye was effectively removed, it was, all things Russian considered, not half bad -- found a welcome and lucrative place in the black market.

As part of the case, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are investigating as many as six distillers around the United States, and nearly a dozen brokers and freight forwarders, several law enforcement officials said.

Investigators suspect that the shippers have ties to some of the most powerful mob clans in Russia, and that the organizations, including the Solintsevskaya and Ismailovskaya groups, control the distribution of the alcohol there and in some countries in Eastern Europe, the officials said.

''It takes a lot of organization to get millions of gallons from the distilleries in the U.S. to the streets of Moscow,'' Edgar A. Domenech, the special agent in charge of the A.T.F.'s New York office, said recently. The agency, which in addition to investigating firearms and explosives trafficking regulates the alcohol industry, is handling that part of the joint investigation, while the F.B.I. is overseeing other aspects of the case, including those involving Russian organized crime.

Since the days of the czars, when half of Russia's state revenues came from government-controlled vodka sales, the drink has played an outsize role in the nation's life and politics.

It accounted for 35 percent of the Soviet Union's income until oil and gas became big money makers in the 1980's. But that number plunged to roughly 4 percent in Russia after President Boris N. Yeltsin liquidated the state monopoly in 1992. And with the collapse of the economy, many local producers failed and foreign distillers began to export vast quantities of grain alcohol to Russia and neighboring countries.

Anonymous said...

I don't necessarily agree with the proposed solutions, but I have to give credit where it's due. At least the government is finally doing some serious research on the problem as opposed to the days of Gorbachev's teetotalling campaign.