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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Easy Way to Reduce These Deaths

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Alcohol poisoning is back in the spotlight after dozens of people died and more than 1,000 were hospitalized after drinking non-potable spirits in recent days. The problem is not a new one; about 42,000 Russians die every year from alcohol poisoning, according to figures from the Federation Council. Unfortunately, chances are high that once the current furor dies down, nothing will change and alcohol poisoning will return to its place in the litany of Russia's social ills.

The rash of poisonings seems to be linked in part to the government's decision to tackle another social ill: corruption. The state cracked down on alcohol over the summer with a new labeling system that has made it difficult for retailers to sell alcohol without paying taxes. This has led to a drop in cheap, mass-produced vodka on the shelves. Demand for cheap spirits, however, has remained unchanged, prompting people to turn to drinking liquids never meant for human consumption.

But the crackdown does not explain why 42,000 people are dying every year.

Contributing to the problem is a societal addiction to drink, a low level of respect for the law and the fact that a large percentage of the population lives in poverty, often in backwaters where there is little work and very little else to do.

As such, any approach to solving the problem will have to be complex and comprehensive.

Presumably, continued growth in average incomes -- where progress is being made -- and a less skewed distribution of the benefits from strong economic growth -- where progress has been less than impressive -- will save lives, as people are able to afford safer options. But this will take time.

A proposal to lower taxation levels on legally produced liquor, and vodka in particular, might have some effect, but it is unlikely to lower prices enough. Another suggestion, to reinstate the state monopoly on vodka production, is unlikely to be particularly effective. This will not stop people from drinking perfume or cleaning fluids, as is often the case. The state also has a monopoly on granting driver's licenses, but the roads are filled with drivers who attained theirs illegally.

Clearly some kind of public education program will have to be part of the solution.

Social mores are central to the problem, as a large part of the cases of alcohol poisoning are due not to what the person drank, but how much. Although many remember the anti-alcohol campaign under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with disdain, the simple fact is that it saved lives. The regular references in the media to the fact that President Vladimir Putin himself drinks only in moderation has probably itself done something to help.

Improving the situation significantly will likely take generations. But the time to start educating society, and the young in particular, is now. Greater efforts to stigmatize the behavior need to be made to prevent future generations from living -- and dying -- with this problem.