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Russia's heavy drinkers turn to moonshine, cleaning products

Published:Thursday | March 26, 2015 | 12:00 AMMOSCOW (AP):
Alexander Polikarpov, the head doctor of the Alcospas chain of alcohol rehab clinics in Moscow.

As the economic crisis sweeps through Russia, a dangerous trend is emerging in this heavy-drinking country: the rise in consumption of potentially lethal moonshine, medical alcohol or even cleaning products.

Layoffs, wage cuts and price increases are combining to worsen the problem of alcoholism, which has long been a major public health issue, by increasing the mix of dangerous products in the market. Those who can no longer afford store-bought drinks are turning to "under the counter" alternatives that can cause serious damage, even death.

Alexander Polikarpov, the head doctor of the Alcospas chain of alcohol rehab clinics in Moscow, says he has noticed a "wave" of complications in patients, such as delirium tremens, a symptom of withdrawal also known as 'the shakes' and epilepsy.

Polikarpov's staff of up to 40 doctors specialises in providing emergency detox for drinkers whose families are desperate to end a multi-day binge. Their patients are more likely to be vodka drinkers scaling down to low-cost, lower-quality varieties. The more desperate cases of alcoholics using industrial products tend to occur in more remote, rural regions.

"A number of patients who previously could afford expensive spirits are now forced to reorient in the sense that they use cheaper and lower-quality spirits," Polikarpov said in his consulting room in the capital's suburbs.

Sales of legal beer and vodka have fallen sharply as prices rise, buoyed in part by the rising cost of imported ingredients after the ruble's value tumbled last year. Analysts say falling sales likely don't mean that demand is falling, simply that it is being pushed into an illegal and dangerous black market.