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Alcohol Poisoning Outbreak Sweeps Russia

  • Lisa McAdams

The chairman of Russia's State Duma (parliament) is calling for a return to Soviet-era state control over the sale of spirits, amid a nationwide outbreak of alcohol poisoning. More than 100 people have died and nearly 1,000 others have been hospitalized in at least eight regions across Russia.

Earlier this year, the Russian government initiated a nationwide crackdown on illegal alcohol - instituting a complicated and costly new labeling system that made it difficult for retailers to sell alcohol without paying taxes.

Within weeks, store shelves were virtually bare of the usual row upon row of Russia's national drink, vodka . Wine and other spirits also became hard to find.

But instead of combating the problem of bootleg (illegal) alcohol, the chairman of Russia's State Duma, Boris Gryzlov, says the campaign does not appear to have gone far enough. He is calling for a restoration of the state monopoly on alcohol sales, as was practiced during Soviet times.

Speaker Gryzlov's call comes as more than 100 Russians have died of acute toxic hepatitis, brought on by drinking fake alcohol, over the past few weeks.

According to official statistics, more than 40,000 Russians die every year, from drinking homemade alcohol not fit for human consumption. Most of those stricken are poor.

As the number of sick in the latest outbreak continues to climb, governments in a number of the affected regions have declared states-of-emergency - allowing police to conduct surprise inspection of shops selling alcohol.

Officials in some regions are even trying to buy out remaining supplies of fake alcohol, to prevent further distribution. Local police officer Alexei Ivanov, of Vladimir, says the effort is difficult at best.

Ivanov says large numbers of bottles of bad alcohol are already circulating among the population. He says, as a result, the seizures are only one step toward correcting the problem. He says a public-information campaign must also be launched to warn the Russian people about the dangers of fake alcohol.

Meanwhile, Russian Health Ministry officials have been tasked with analyzing the problem and are expected to present a report suggesting solutions to the government, by the next week.

Some experts say the problem will require more than studies and police action. They say the government needs to address the underlying, widespread problem of excessive drinking in Russia.

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