Russia’s “surrogate” alcohol problem took a deadly turn over the weekend, with scores of people in the Siberian city Irkutsk drinking poisonous bath oil that contained alcohol. Seventy-two have died, leaving three children orphaned, and another 46 have been hospitalized in the city that hugs the world’s deepest lake, Baikal.
The mass poisoning was a startling reminder of the economic woes Russia has faced under the double blow of low oil prices and Western sanctions, and its growing surrogate alcohol crisis. Up to 12 million Russians each year drink surrogate alcohol, which can include perfume, after-shave, antifreeze, and window cleaner.
“People don’t have the money to buy a normal product in the store, so they search for something cheaper, and cheaper as a rule is surrogate alcohol,” said Alexander Nikishin, director of the National Museum of Russian Vodka. “It’s a problem of people lacking money.”
The epidemic began Saturday as people with “signs of acute poisoning and exotoxic shock,” many of them unconscious, were brought to local hospitals, a local doctor told Reuters. At the root of the mass poisoning was a bad batch of Boyaryshnik, a traditional hawthorn-scented bath oil containing alcohol. The product usually contains ethanol, but this batch was found to have methanol or wood alcohol, which is used in antifreeze and can be lethal even in small amounts.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the government to regulate the manufacturing and sale of alcohol-containing products more strictly and create a nationwide mandatory labeling system. Producers and retailers will need a license to work with products containing more than 25 percent ethanol, including cosmetics, perfumes, household chemicals and personal hygiene products.
Putin also called for harsher rules for retailing of medicines containing alcohol, as well as increased criminal penalties for breaking the law while making or selling alcohol-based products. And speaking to parliament on Thursday, he condemned the recent practice of reducing alcohol taxes to help domestic industries such as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
“In practice we see what such indulgences lead to: dozens of people dying like flies,” Putin said, before calling for taxes to be raised. “Cosmetics will be costlier in the end, but people’s lives cost more.
Nationalist member of parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky tried to suggest the opposite tactic of encouraging people to drink lower-priced vodka rather than counterfeits. “Let’s give them cheap vodka,” he said. “The cheapest vodka today is 200 rubles, 190. Well let’s put it out for 100 rubles.”
“It’s bootlegging, pure and simple.”
Russia also reduced the price of vodka in 2015 to help cushion the blow as the economy entered recession and inflation skyrocketed. Previously the government had been raising the minimum price to fight the country’s endemic drinking problem: A 2014 survey found that the average Russian drank 20 liters of vodka a year, compared with an average of three liters of spirits in the UK, and a quarter of Russian men died before the age of 55 due largely to widespread drinking and smoking.
But raising prices had an unintended consequence: The production of counterfeit alcohol shot up by as much as 65 percent.
Besides its famous samogon, or moonshine, Russia has a long and dubious tradition of its citizens drinking dodgy alcohol substitutes. In the classic novel “Moscow to the End of the Line,” Venedikt Yerofeyev’s alcoholic hero at one point describes recipes for cocktails made from shoe polish, air-freshener, anti-perspirant, and gasoline.
“Boyaryshnik” bath oils are more often drunk for their alcohol content than used for their nominal purpose, according to Nikishin. The labels on the poisonous batch of Boyaryshnik declared it was 93 percent alcohol, state news agency TASS reported.
“The name Boyaryshnik is used to hide the nature of this product,” he said. “You can buy Boyaryshnik in a pharmacy, a medicinal tincture. And then there is the Boyaryshnik spirit, which they call medicinal, but really it’s just alcohol with the taste of Boyaryshnik. It’s bootlegging, pure and simple.”
The poisoning in Irkutsk has sparked a nationwide crackdown. Irkutsk authorities have detained 12 people and seized more than 30 tons of counterfeit liquids from stores. Five illegal kiosks that had been selling dodgy bath oil will be torn down.
Police stopped a truck that, according to its documents, was transporting plaster but was in fact carrying 66,000 bottles of counterfeit Cognac. Law enforcement later found an underground factory in the Saratov region producing counterfeit alcohol and seized 26,000 bottles of counterfeit alcohol as well as one ton of pure alcohol, 4,500 liters of fake cognac and labels with the names of various well-known brands.
Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, the New York Times, Politico, Slate, Time, and others. His Twitter handle is @ASLuhn