Vice Squad
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Zapoi in Izhevsk

The alcohol situation in Russia continues to astound. (For earlier examples, see this November 19, 2003 post of acute alcohol poisonings, and co-blogger Mike's April 14, 2007 response to some dodgy statistics.) In the April, 2007 issue of Addiction is a report on drinking in the city of Izhevsk, in the Urals. The researchers wanted to find out about problematic drinking behaviors, going beyond per capita consumption statistics and standard "binge" queries (5 or more drinks in one sitting for men is the usual binge criterion.) They interviewed people who lived with adult men, and asked these people -- usually the spouse -- about the man's drinking. (They interviewed the 1,750 male subjects themselves, too, but it is well-known that people significantly under-report their own drinking.)

The findings that are most unsettling, at least to me, concern two worrisome drinking behaviors, surrogates and zapoi. By 'surrogates,' the researchers are referring to the consumption of alcohol mixtures that are not intended to be imbibed, such as colognes; 8 percent of the men were reported to have drunk surrogates in the past year, and 4 percent drank them weekly. Remember, these data concern men who live with other people -- the homeless and men who live alone are excluded from the study -- and hence might even be expected to have less troublesome drinking habits than the average male. The authors note that the appeal of these unpalatable surrogates is their combination of low price and high alcohol content, allowing the surrogates to provide a fixed quantity of alcohol at something like 1/6 what it would cost by consuming vodka. Almost 4 out of 5 of the men drank vodka or other spirits over the course of a year, with about 20 percent consuming on a weekly basis.

Oops, I took a little break before I discussed zapoi. OK, that sentence is supposed to represent a very weak self-referential joke, because the Russian word zapoi refers to a sort of extended binge, a two-day or longer period in which someone withdraws from normal life in favor of drinking and continuous drunkenness. Ten percent of the men in the study had an episode of zapoi in the previous year. Wow -- and again, it is likely that the real alcohol devotees are not even included in the sample.

Russian alcohol surrogates crop up in Moskva-Petushki, a Soviet-era underground, alcohol-soaked tale that includes some recipes for making exotic drinks (such as "Tear of a Komsomol Girl") from surrogates. As I recall, one instruction is something along the lines of "Purify a can of varnish," leading to a discussion of how it can be that in the Soviet Union, almost no one knows how Pushkin died, but everyone knows how to purify a can of varnish.

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