Russia declares an emergency as deaths from fake vodka soar

Click to follow

Anton Chekhov once described vodka as a colourless drink that "paints your nose red and blackens your reputation". What the Russian playwright did not say was that if you are not careful it can also turn you yellow, give you toxic hepatitis, and leave you nursing a hangover from which you will never recover.

After two months of rising alcohol deaths, Russia has declared a state of emergency in several regions where hospitals are struggling to cope with a wave of alcohol poisonings.

The radio station Ekho Moskvy says the casualty figures look more like those from a small war. More than 1,000 people have been treated in hospital in the past two months and at least 50 people have died from drinking batches of vodka or hard liquor that have been adulterated with toxic substances.

Russian television has broadcast Dickensian images of yellowing men and women in hospital wards and of desperate rural workers swigging what they believe to be vodka.

The crisis has been triggered by counterfeit vodka, which sells for as little as 70 roubles (£1.40) a bottle. Clearly not interested in getting repeat customers, unscrupulous businesmeny are adulterating it with ingredients that belong in a garage rather than a bar.

A recent police raid on a warehouse in the town of Voronezh intercepted a batch of liquor that was about to be passed off as vodka. Its ingredients included brake fluid, anti-corrosion solution and cheap eau de cologne. In other cases vodka has been found to contain window-cleaning fluid, lighter fluid, de-icer, antiseptics, and cheap aftershave.

Several criminal investigations have been opened and politicians from President Vladimir Putin through to MPs have urged urgent action. The Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, said in a letter to the Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov that 42,000 Russians died of alcohol poisoning each year.

"Just in the first half of the current year, about 18,000 people died of alcohol poisoning, and the situation in the territories of Perm and the regions of Amur, Belgorod, Volgograd, Irkutsk and Pskov is particularly alarming," senators said in the letter.

The poisonings are taking their toll on Russia's demographics; the 144-million strong country is "losing" around 700,000 people each year and male life expectancy is just 59 years, more than a decade lower than women's.

Police believe a handful of gangs are behind the trade but the authorities also have themselves to blame. A bureaucratic bungle has seen supplies of genuine vodka severely reduced since July, a situation that has forced prices up, leaving some drinkers with little choice but to buy the cheap stuff.

A group of businessmen in the countryside recently started up a special labour exchange for non-drinking workers to encourage rural dwellers not to drink. The response so far has been disappointing though: only 126 men signed up.