Siberia is usually known for climate-change related disasters and mysterious holes, more or less making it the Eurasian Florida. And this week a story has been making the weird news rounds, of an epidemic of deaths from Siberians drinking bath lotion. But as ridiculous as it sounds, this is just the latest example of a very real problem in Russia.
The stereotype of Russians as alcoholics has some rather ugly truth to it. It’s estimated a quarter of Russian men die before they’re 55 due to heavy alcohol consumption. By contrast, roughly 2.5 million Americans pass away each year, and only 3% of those fatalities are due to alcohol consumption. But despite what you might think, it’s not vodka. Despite the government cutting the price of the spirit most closely associated with Russia, it’s still more expensive than many Russians can afford to support their habit. Paired with Russia’s terrible economy, where some areas enjoy growth while others face unemployment rates for 30% or more, and that high cost of vodka, that’s where surrogate alcohol comes in.
Surrogate alcohol is, simply, alcohol not intended for human consumption that humans drink anyway. You’ve likely heard the urban legend that mouthwash companies mix some mysterious chemical agent into their product to induce vomiting and prevent alcoholics from drinking it, or perhaps you’ve seen Meredith eating hand sanitizer to get a buzz on The Office. While the “vomit chemical” urban legend is just a rumor, surrogate alcohol is a very real phenomenon. The issue, though, is that the companies making these products don’t intend for them to be consumed by humans, so they’ll add a variety of chemicals that you shouldn’t ingest in the first place, sometimes even methanol, which can be fatal to humans, and their alcohol content can be extremely high. Some products are nearly 100% pure alcohol, which shouldn’t be consumed by humans.
Surrogate alcohol has been a problem in Russia for years. A 2005 study found 7.3% of working-age men in Russia regularly drank surrogate alcohols and some estimates have pegged deaths of unemployed Russian men due to surrogate alcohol abuse as high as 43%. In fact, there are reports, albeit sketchy, that cheap aftershaves will sometimes package themselves like vodka for that market. In Russia, it’s much cheaper because it’s not taxed, making it even more appealing.
Hence, the tragedy in Siberia. As surrogate alcohol is so widely accepted, and even catered to, nobody thought twice about drinking the bath oil. While the Russian authorities have “cracked down,” this is hardly the first time this has happened in Russia. And, unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be the last.