Of­fi­cials look­ing to cap vodka hang­over

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Kuchki, Rus­sia

In a snowy field out­side Moscow, an aban­doned barn con­ceals an il­licit vodka dis­tillery that pro­duces thou­sands of bot­tles of Rus­sia’s na­tional drink for the black mar­ket.

In a re­cent raid, police seized more than 100,000 bot­tles with coun­ter­feit la­bels and tax stamps from the barn in the vil­lage of Kuchki.

Sur­ro­gate al­co­hol, a cheaper al­ter­na­tive to store­bought spir­its, ac­counts for many deaths in Rus­sia ev­ery year and is com­ing un­der grow­ing scru­tiny in a coun­try with one of the high­est liquor con­sump­tion rates in the world.

This week at least 71 peo­ple died in the Siberian city of Irkutsk af­ter drink­ing bath salts con­tain­ing toxic methanol in a bid to get a cheap high.

The bot­tles dis­cov­ered in Kuchki cost un­der $2 each — three times less than vodka sold in shops.

“We don’t know what they make this vodka with,” said Alexan­der Ku­likov from Rus­sia’s al­co­hol reg­u­la­tor.

The equip­ment at the barn looked clean, but Ku­likov re­calls a case in which vodka-mak­ers at an­other il­le­gal fa­cil­ity were work­ing “in mud up to their knees”.

Af­ter ban­ning the sale of spir­its at night and hik­ing al­co­hol taxes, au­thor­i­ties have started crack­ing down on boot­leg­gers in a bid to curb the dam­age wreaked by il­le­gally-pro­duced booze.

Of­fi­cials said they have dis­man­tled more than 170 work­shops, seiz­ing over 37 mil­lion liters since Oc­to­ber 2015.

Au­thor­i­ties are also hop­ing the crack­down will help ad­dress the prob­lem of un­paid taxes by il­le­gal al­co­hol pro­duc­ers, as low oil prices have hit Rus­sia’s cof­fers.

A new law came into force in July re­quir­ing busi­ness own­ers who sell al­co­hol to join an elec­tronic reg­istry that tracks each bot­tle from pro­duc­tion to sale, an ini­tia­tive meant to pre­vent sur­ro­gate booze from mak­ing its way onto the shelves.

Black mar­ket

This has seen le­gal vodka sales bounce back af­ter years of stag­na­tion — an in­di­ca­tion that the black mar­ket is shrink­ing.

Vadim Dro­biz, a re­searcher who stud­ies al­co­hol mar­kets, said the black mar­ket share in hard liquor sales dropped to 50 per­cent this year af­ter stand­ing at 65 per­cent in 2015.

But as Rus­sia strug­gles to pull it­self out of a re­ces­sion that has bat­tered the cur­rency and sig­nif­i­cantly di­min­ished peo­ple’s pur­chas­ing power, it seems un­likely the black mar­ket will dis­ap­pear al­to­gether.

Ac­cord­ing to Dro­biz, up to 25 mil­lion Rus­sians do not earn enough to pur­chase liquor at of­fi­cial sell­ing out­lets.

Hop­ing to save a few rubles, the poor­est of­ten turn to cos­met­ics and house­hold prod­ucts con­tain­ing al­co­hol.

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