Stricter regulations on alcohol in Russia follow mass poisoning

As the New Year begins, Russia prepares to introduce new measures to clampdown on pharmaceutical alcohol following the deaths of almost 80 people in last year's mass alcohol poisoning in Siberia.

Seventy-seven people died in the Siberian town of Irkutsk in December after consuming a fake bath oil as a cheap alcoholic alternative, which contained harmful methanol instead of ethanol. The mass alcohol poisoning, which also resulted in eight children being orphaned, led to a state of emergency being declared and a temporary ban on the sale of all liquids containing alcohol. President Vladimir Putin and other authorities vowed to tighten regulations of non-potable alcohol in response.

Then a second alcohol poisoning incident occurred at the end of December in the Russian city of Orenburg where one person died and another was hospitalised. Several thousand litres of illegal alcohol were confiscated.

Experts estimate that 12 million Russians drink surrogate alcohol – including perfume, antifreeze and window cleaner – as a cheap alternative to the real product, even though the risk of harm is greater. Furthermore, reports suggest demand for surrogate alcohol is growing by 20 per cent each year.

The issue, which is attributed to the country's economic crisis, has increasingly grabbed headlines and the attention of authorities, and a number of measures to tackle the problem have been introduced over the years but to limited effect.

Following the current poisoning incident, Putin called for stricter controls over the production and sale of liquids including perfume, cleaning fluids, medicines and cosmetics that contain more than 25 per cent alcohol, and has considered increasing the legal consequences for violations in the sale and production of these products.

Already more than 26,000 litres of illegal alcohol have been confiscated in Russia since the Siberian poisoning, including 896 litres of non-potable alcohol. And on 23 December a month-long ban on the sale of non-food products containing more than 25 per cent alcohol was introduced, although it excludes perfumes and glass-cleaning products. Putin has also called for alcohol tax, which is not applied to medical alcohol products or perfume, to be slashed.

Now a new regulation is expected shortly where a prescription will be required to buy medicines that contain alcohol. In many areas in Russia, the bath oil at the centre of the Irkutsk poisoning can be bought from vending machines and has also been found to be sold from food and drink kiosks.

"These medications should certainly be sold in pharmacies, with the prescription of a doctor. There is also no reason for these mixtures to be sold in pint-sized containers. We need regulations on packaging," The Moscow Times reported Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin as saying.

Prior to the mass poisoning, the Russian government already had plans to start monitoring pharmaceutical ethanol in 2017 through its unified automatic information system, where manufacturers will be required to keep records, which would provide more information on the volume of alcohol produced and track its distribution.

Authorities also announced proposals in November that included a possible ban on the sale of alcohol-based products in vending machines and a tax on alcohol-containing medicines and cosmetics. There have also been murmurs around increasing the drinking age from 18 to 21.

Critics have claimed the measures aren't enough to stop the consumption of surrogate alcohol but authorities hope it will reduce the production of counterfeit alcohol, which uses pharmaceutical alcohol as a raw ingredient.

Many, however, have pointed to the economic crisis and poverty as the main issues that need to be addressed.

"The problem isn't the surrogates themselves but rather the economic incentives that lead to people using surrogates," Arseniy Yashkin, a Russian scholar with Duke University, told the publication Benzinga.

"Controlling or banning surrogates is a cosmetic 'feel-good' measure. As long as the incentives to find cheap sources of alcohol are there, such events will continue to occur episodically."

Meanwhile, another law restricting the sale of alcoholic drinks in plastic bottles has also come into effect.

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