Monday, November 06, 2006

Mixing Prohibition with Russian roulette

Russians are stereotypically hard drinkers, with possibly millions of alcoholics. It was bad enough that the Soviet Union encouraged drinking, and that so many Russians today are still so poor that they drink what we'd consider "moonshine." Now the regulations of Putin's government are pushing people toward truly poisonous forms.
Alcohol Deaths Spark Debate in Russia

MOSCOW Nov 3, 2006 (AP)— 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....

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....
I remember about six years ago when Putin's Cabinet announced higher taxes on vodka. Putin was acting president then, and with an upcoming presidential election, he of course did not want to anger vodka drinkers. So he distanced himself from his Cabinet, though not enough that he resisted raising taxes on all alcohol beverages later in the year.

It doesn't take a great deal or a great depth of thinking to realize that when many Russians could no longer afford as much alcoholic beverages, they naturally turned toward cheap moonshine. Then police cracked down on "illegal" distillers, and the real alcoholics would resort to dangerously unpotable substitutes. not so much to "protect" the people, but because Putin's government wants every ruble of excise tax revenue it can squeeze from drinkers, smokers and any type of consumer. On the income tax side, Putin may have instituted a flat tax, but that wasn't for maximizing tax revenue by promoting economic growth -- it was merely for maximizing tax revenue, economic growth be damned.

History repeated itself when Putin's government banned the imports of Georgian and Moldavian wines, and when it established the insane new system of tax labels. Who is truly surprised that more impoverished Russian alcoholics turned to lethal products to satisfy their addiction? The solution is for Putin to lift the imported wine ban, which would have to happen after someone extracts the dead bug lodged in his sigmoid colon. Next, the Russian police need to stop harassing distillers, so that people can make their own crude moonshine. The rough distillates aren't the best for their health, but then again neither is 20 liters each year of "quality" 100-proof vodka. At least either would take years of liver damage to kill a person, rather than outright poisoning from deicer fluid.

Now, a little bit of my family history. My father, his two brothers and their mother were very poor during the Depression. Bleeding hearts today throw out "poverty" like it means anything what it once did. Forget any modern connotation you know: my father's family was poor. He was a great track athlete but gave it up to work after school, not so he could have a car like teenagers today, but so his family could afford to eat. He came home from school at least once and was told by his mother, "I'm sorry, there's nothing to eat." Nothing at all, not even bread.

How many people do you know ever had to go without a meal because they couldn't afford it? Today, "poor" and "having a tough time making ends meet" don't include hunger. Now, states and the federal government release estimates that a certain number of people, especially children, are "hungry." But as Thomas Sowell and others have pointed out, the government merely estimates how many need public assistance for food, subtracts the number who do receive assistance, and concludes that the rest must be "hungry." There's no consideration that those people receive other forms of help, and let's face it: in today's America, it almost takes effort to die of starvation.

According to my father, who rarely spoke of her, his mother worked as a saloon waitress. During Prohibition, then, she was selling illegal beverages. It still wasn't enough. One day, one of those when there was literally nothing for her and my father to eat for dinner, her boss stopped by to buy a drink. He knew that my grandmother made and sold "bathtub gin" on the side, and I suspect he knew they were particularly hard up at the time. He paid five dollars for just one drink. Five whole dollars!

My grandmother participated in peaceful commerce that harmed no one (note that the violence around alcohol arose only because of Prohibition), and curses on any person who faults her for breaking the law -- an unjust law -- to feed her family. She did what she had to do, damn it. Had she obeyed the law, in fact the Supreme Law of the Land (the 18th Amendment to the Constitution), her family would have starved to death. And Franklin Roosevelt would have gone on, smiling with his cigarette holder at a "jaunty angle," oblivious to what was really happening.


Blogger Billy Beck said...

Datapoint: For a while in the late Soviet period, the Red Air Force had a notable problem with aircraft maintenance crews.

They were draining the coolant out of aircraft radar systems and drinking it.

Monday, November 06, 2006 7:20:00 AM  

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