According to Gryzlov, more than 17,000 people were killed as a direct result of consuming counterfeit liquor and alcohol substitutes from January through early September. He did not specify the source of his information. Gryzlov said spurious alcohol claimed 30,000 lives in 2005. "This year, the situation somewhat improved," he said, adding that the figure was still shocking.
Officials make much lower estimates. "Since early September, 5,100 citizens were poisoned after drinking surrogate alcohol, and 295 of them died," Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said in a report to the State Duma deputies.
Earlier in the year, Nurgaliyev called alcoholism a national tragedy, and urged a crackdown on sales of counterfeit alcohol. He said about 42,000 are killed or become disabled from alcohol poisoning every year.
The Interior Ministry in cooperation with the Sanitary and Epidemiological Control Agency (Sanepidemnadzor) is trying to locate the sources of illegal alcohol. "Our investigators are working in 14 regions in Russia where the main facilities for the production of technical spirits are located," the minister said.
From mid-September through the end of October this year, 530 people poisoned by illegally sold alcohol were hospitalized in the Pskov region, a few hundred kilometers northwest of Moscow. Of those, 326 were men and 204 women, according to the Federal Consumer Protection Service.
Gennady Onishchenko, who heads the Federal Consumer Protection Service, told Prime-Tass news agency that the recent wave of alcohol-related health problems was a coordinated campaign by bootleggers to disrupt efforts of law enforcement agencies to crack down on sale of illegal alcohol.
He called for punishment of bootleggers who "knowingly" sell tainted alcohol. Onishchenko suggested that all spirits should be taxed so that "liquids for bonfires and cleaning carpets" would no longer be significantly cheaper than legally produced alcohol beverages.
"This would eliminate the economic incentive to produce all these distillates and to poison the country's population with them," he said. "Take, for example, a liquid intended to spark a campfire. People in low-income groups don't use it to spark fire but just drink it. The people who are getting poisoned have below-average incomes and most of them are alcoholics, and will keep on drinking," he said.
Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov says numerous cases have been uncovered where victims appear to have drunk alcohol-based detergents and other lethal chemicals distributed in vodka bottles.
"We need to take steps to arrest this trend by all means possible," State Duma health committee deputy chairman Nikolay Gerasimenko told IPS.
"It's very simple, the frequent use of fake products is on the rise. Many alcohol producers have ignored standard manufacturing requirements or rules, and they are using hazardous substances these days which is now killing innocent people," he said.
"Scientists in narcology have prepared a major report analyzing the alcoholism problem in Russia," Gerasimenko added. A law requiring changes in the composition of industrial alcohol came into force July 1, he said. But that seems to have done little to reduce the deaths.
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov had held three of his juniors responsible for cases of poisoning. Andrey Sharonov, deputy economic development and trade minister, Igor Rudenay, deputy agriculture minister, and Sergey Shatalov, deputy finance minister, helped implement a centralized computer system in January that tracks all registered alcohol beverages with new labels.
The system malfunctioned, leaving millions of bottles in storage awaiting new labels, and allowing counterfeit alcohol to reach the market place. The malfunction also led to losses of roughly $1.5 billion in sales and $262 million in tax revenues.
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