MOSCOW – In a country renowned for hard drinking, most people aren't surprised to hear that 42,000 people die from counterfeit alcohol in Russia each year.
Perfumes, aftershave, cleaning liquids and other fluids have been passed off by counterfeiters as vodka for decades, and have long been on the drinks list of Russia's more desperate alcoholics.
But recent poisonings have grabbed unusual attention in a nation where many are numb to the problem of alcoholism. The cases have dominated news reports and Cabinet meetings, fueling debate about a malaise that has helped lower Russia's average life expectancy rate to 66, 14 years shorter than the European Union average.
There is no clear explanation for the sudden attention. Some blame the recent deaths on bungled regulatory measures that caused a shortage of real vodka, driving even more people to buy bootlegged products. Others suggest that heavy coverage on state-run television is a propaganda push to pave the way for creating a state monopoly in the vodka market.
The government this week reported 19,000 deaths from surrogate alcohol so far this year and has kept the public updated on the latest rash of cases. But that's actually 4,000 fewer than last year, adding to the mystery surrounding the heightened attention.
Some people believe the government released the statistics all at once to garner support for creating a state monopoly in the alcohol market. President Vladimir Putin's government has moved to increase state control over strategic industries like oil and gas, and some observers believe vodka is next.
"What they are saying about a wave of poisonings is ... aimed at creating an additional feeding trough for officials," said Andrei Shurikhin, president of the S.P.I. Group, which controls the foreign trademark rights to Stolichnaya vodka and owns the biggest spirit producer in Russia.
Police and prosecutors have been swift to show they are cracking down on counterfeiters. Nurgaliyev said special police units had been deployed in 14 regions to clamp down on plants that covertly produce "vodkas" containing methylated spirit with names like "Ray of Light."
"They may have a pleasant brand and name ... but they are essentially poison," the minister was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Last week, police in the central Voronezh region confiscated 600 tons of liquids with a 95 percent ethyl alcohol content, apparently aimed at drinkers. Police said they contained cleaning fluids, window deicers and chemicals used for removing rust.
Some argue that delays in issuing new tax labels for imported alcohol, along with glitches in a new automated database to track sales and supply, provoked a shortage that counterfeiters were more than happy to fill. Tens of thousands of bottles sat in warehouses unable to be registered in the new system, which was meant to prevent bootlegging.
The delays led to a 13 percent fall in legal production levels, said Dmitry Dobrov of the Union of Alcoholic Goods Producers, which represents manufacturers that produce 40 percent of the nation's vodka. He estimated that about a third of the vodka sold in Russia last year was counterfeit.
A ban on Georgian and Moldovan wines — widely regarded as Kremlin punishment for the pro-Western path taken those countries_ contributed to the shortage of affordable legal drinks.
"It all happened in one moment and, of course, a part of population turned to surrogates," said Oleg Zykov, the director of the "No to Alcoholism and Drug Abuse" foundation in Moscow.
Nataliya Zagvozdina, a consumer goods analyst with the Renaissance Capital investment bank, said the shortage has driven consumers from stores to open-air markets, where quality control is lax.
"The government created the black market this year," she said.
At a Cabinet meeting Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov reprimanded the deputy agriculture, finance and economics ministers, who had been responsible for developing the new database system.
But there are other important factors behind the crisis. Pavel Shapkin, the head of the National Alcohol Association, pointed to a loophole in tax legislation that has made alcohol-based antiseptics, which often contain dangerous toxins, popular among bootleggers. Under changes introduced at the start of the year, medicines are exempt from taxes on products containing spirit.
"Over five to six years, people learned to drink antifreeze; now (bootleggers) have started making their pigswill using antiseptics," Shapkin said, who argued the tax exemption for medical liquids should be lifted.
The agriculture minister called for a state control over the sale of ethyl alcohol, while the head of the upper house of parliament said the government should monopolize production. Boris Gryzlov, the head of the Kremlin-backed United Russia party said the state should control the entire alcohol retail trade.
Zykov, the anti-alcoholism activist, said a government monopoly would be too heavy-handed and would not resolve Russia's problem with alcoholism.
"If there is no transparency, no civil control, then a monopoly will be useless," Zykov said. "At its foundation is the decision of individuals to drink this rubbish."