Sunday, March 11, 2007

Finally catching up with the backlog of blogs – 3 in one day! it has been an incredibly busy few weeks, writing papers and book chapters almost constantly. Like the labours of Hercules, no matter how much you do there is always more. I did have a short break from writing the week before last, when Dave Leon, Vladimir Shkolnikov, and I went to Moscow to participate in a conference on alcohol in Russia. Our work has highlighted the very important role played by technical, or surrogate alcohols in the Russian mortality crisis. Readers will have to wait to read the full results in the Lancet but their importance is now beyond any reasonable doubt. These are things like aftershaves (odekolon), medicinal tinctures, and firelighting liquids. Shortly after we presented our initial findings to the Russian Presidential Administration, new laws were introduced to clamp down on the sales of aftershaves. These are sold in brightly coloured 250 ml bottles. Although labelled “for external use only” everyone knows they are really for drinking. Initial evidence suggests that the new law is working. It seems much more difficult to obtain the aftershaves. Unfortunately, it did address the sale of medicinal tinctures and it now seems that these are being consumed in larger amounts than ever. An unfortunate side effect was that people unable to get aftershave turned to antiseptics, many of which contained highly toxic substances (as we showed in an earlier paper, the aftershaves are pure 95% ethanol – a few contain some lemon scent but most don’t even have that).

Photos of odekolons bought in Russia

There are also very encouraging signs from some individual cities in Russia. We heard a fascinating story about the so-called “sober cities” in Sverdlovsk region, where a NGO has taken the lead, essentially forcing the police to take action. They knew that this would be difficult when, just after they started working, they diverted a truck full of surrogate spirits to the yard of a police station late one night. They checked it in and returned the next morning to ensure that the police were acting on it. The truck was gone and none of the police could “remember” seeing it. Now they are much more careful.
The path ahead will be very difficult, but it is a pleasant change to fly out of Moscow with a real sense that things are changing for the better.

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