As an economic crisis sweeps through Russia, a dangerous trend is emerging in the 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. A doctor at a chain of alcohol rehab clinics in Moscow says he's noticed a "wave" of complications in patients, such as delirium tremens—a symptom of withdrawal also known as "the shakes"—and epilepsy. 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. 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's being pushed into an illegal and dangerous black market. The alternatives to increasingly costly legal alcohol are many and varied. At the safer end of the scale is vodka production diverted and sold on the side by workers at legitimate distilleries, but some products, such as industrial spirits or moonshine made by inexperienced or unscrupulous distillers, can be lethal. Some of the most harmful yet popular alternatives to legal alcohol are liquids designed "for hair growth or for cleaning the bath," says a market analyst. As of 2010, Russians consumed the fourth-highest amount of alcohol per capita in the world. (Read more alcohol stories.)