Russian official calls for action against counterfeit alcohol as death toll climbs

A senior Russian government official called for action against counterfeit alcohol Friday, a news report said, as the death toll from fake vodka and toxic alcohol substitutes in recent weeks continued to climb highlighting widespread alcohol abuse in Russia.

Officials in the central Voronezh region announced the seizure of 600 tons of hazardous liquids that authorities suspected were intended to be resold as vodka.

The liquids were cleansing, car window deicing and de-rusting chemicals that contained 95 percent ethyl spirit, the region's chief health official Mikhail Chubirko said, according to ITAR-Tass news agency.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that it would be impossible to meet targets for improved health in Russia unless the problem of fake alcohol was tackled, Ekho Moskvy radio reported.

"If we don't deal with these problems, then we can't meet any goals under the national health project," it quoted him as saying.

More than 100 Russians have died and hundreds more have been affected in recent weeks by an outbreak of toxic hepatitis caused by bad alcohol.

Forty-two thousand Russians die each year from drinking homemade alcohol, according to the country's interior minister.

In the western Belgorod region alone, 44 of the 915 affected have died, the government emergency agency's local branch said, according to ITAR-Tass. The health scare there began in August, but in most other affected regions it started only last month.

In the northwestern city of Pskov, near the border with Estonia, at least 16 people died of toxic hepatitis and 369 remained hospitalized with the disease after drinking bad alcohol since mid-September, local emergency officials said. In the Siberian region of Irkutsk, officials have reported 25 fatalities among 604 affected.

Homemade alcohol, known as "samogon" in Russian, is common, and eau de cologne, aftershave products and cleaning fluids are also drunk.

From 1991 to 2001, alcohol consumption in Russia increased about 40 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

Russia's population is dropping by about 700,000 a year. Experts attribute the plunge to economic turmoil that has badly hurt the state health care system, leading to a drop in birth rates and life expectancy, reports AP.

Increased poverty, alcoholism, soaring crime and emigration have also taken their toll. Average life expectancy is just 66 years 16 years lower than Japan and 14 years lower than the EU average.

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