Wednesday, November 1, 2006

MOSCOW — An attempt to crack down on bootleg liquor has backfired spectacularly, with dozens of people dying and more than 2,000 hospitalized in a national wave of alcohol poisoning.

Russian television has shown images of hospital wards across the country swamped with yellow-tinted patients suffering from toxic hepatitis and other severe liver diseases. Some regions have declared states of emergency, and hospitals in Siberia have been turning away patients because beds are already full of sufferers.

The epidemic follows the introduction this year of excise stamps aimed at fighting widespread sales of counterfeit alcohol. The new rules have driven up the price of liquor, and bureaucratic bungling has delayed distribution of the stamps, causing shortfalls that have led drinkers to look elsewhere.

Inexpensive wine also has become scarce since the government banned imports from Georgia and Moldova because of deteriorating relations with the two countries.

Shortages have led to a boom in sales of illegal, homemade spirits and alcohol substitutes, such as cleaning solutions, lighter fuel, antifreeze and rust-removing chemicals.

“Russia is suffering from a severe epidemic,” said Oleg Zykov, director of the No to Alcoholism and Drug Abuse foundation in Moscow. “Because they can’t find cheap vodka, people are poisoning themselves with terrible surrogates.”

Alcoholism and accidents related to alcohol are among the leading causes of death in Russia, especially among Russian men, who have an average life expectancy of 59 years. At least 18,000 persons died in the first nine months of this year from alcohol poisoning.

The crisis is a blow to President Vladimir Putin, who earlier this year made a priority of reversing the country’s drastic population decline. The population is falling by about 700,000 a year.

Reports of a dramatic increase in alcohol-related poisonings began to flood in last week, with poorer regions the worst affected. Officials in the Siberian region of Irkutsk have reported 1,135 sufferers in the past month, including 25 fatalities. In the western Belgorod region, 915 persons have been sickened since August and 44 of them have died.

Russian news organizations have reported that pint bottles of bootleg vodka are being sold for as little as 75 cents. The cheapest bottles of vodka available with an official excise stamp cost about $3.50.

The deaths have led to increasing calls from top officials for a state monopoly on alcohol production, distribution and sales. “If the production and sale of alcohol are in the hands of the state, there will be no bootlegging or industrial spirits and bottles containing unknown liquids on sale in various retail outlets,” Sergei Mironov, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told reporters.

Critics have accused the government of taking advantage of the poisonings to renationalize the alcohol industry. The Kremlin has taken steps in recent years to regain control of important industries, including Russia’s booming oil and gas sector.

The newspaper Vedomosti this week quoted an unidentified “industry player” as saying the surge in press coverage of alcohol-related deaths is part of a campaign by the government to lay the groundwork for a state alcohol monopoly.

Previous attempts to combat bootlegging and alcoholism in Russia have failed. A move by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to severely restrict vodka drinking in the 1980s incurred widespread wrath and is thought to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Zykov said he doubted the introduction of a state monopoly would be effective in fighting alcoholism or reducing the number of alcohol-related deaths.

“The problem isn’t political; it’s cultural,” he said. “We need a wider program to fight alcoholism, especially targeting young people, to convince them that drinking is not automatically part of being Russian.”

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