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‘We are new Russians’: How a hard-drinking nation curbed its alcohol use

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Once the holder of the dubious title of one of the world’s hardest-drinking nations, Russia has fallen steadily down the list — and Eduard Grigoriev likes to think his group can claim some of the credit.

A volunteer with the group Sober Russia, the 21-year-old is a self-proclaimed liquor vigilante. Since his teens, Grigoriev has been helping police crack down on businesses that break Russia’s ever-stricter liquor laws.

“Four years ago, when we started, eight out of 10 stores in Moscow were selling illegal alcohol. Right now, it’s three out of 10,” said Grigoriev of the role that his band of helpers have played in ensuring liquor violators are brought to the attention of police.

Illegal alcohol sales usually take the form of homemade distilled spirits or legally made products sold after hours. Russian law prohibits any off-licence sales in corner stores or grocery stores past 11 p.m. at night.

The restrictions on availability have been part of a sweeping series of measures enacted by the Russian government since 2005, aimed at curbing widespread alcohol abuse in the country.

In its latest report, the World Health Organization acknowledges the efforts have paid off with significantly lower rates of consumption.

Sweeping restrictions

Grigoriev’s group has affiliations with the governing United Russia party and Vladimir Putin’s administration, but Grigoriev said Sober Russia isn’t political, and everyone who joins is a volunteer.

The group’s tactics involve sending volunteers into corner stores after Russia’s 11 p.m. curfew and entrapping staff who sell booze.

Grigoriev, left, and another Sober Russia member report back on the outcome of their sting operation with a Moscow police officer. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

A crew from CBC’s Moscow bureau was with Grigoriev’s team recently when they visited the city’s southern suburbs and documented several of their ensnarement stings.

“We’re doing this because we think we can make Russia a better place to live in,” Grigoriev explained. “This is our future.”

Grigoriev said that if fewer stores sell illegal alcohol, “the better the alcohol will be in legal stores, and the less people will have health problems.”

Sales of illegally distilled spirits in Russia have been a deadly health problem. In one of the worst cases in recent times, 78 people died in the Siberian city of Irkutsk in 2016 after drinking tainted moonshine.

Last week, police released a video of a police raid in a factory that was manufacturing illegal vodka just outside Moscow. It resulted in the seizure of more than 77,000 bottles. Not long before that, a bust at a factory in the central Russian city of Nefteyugansk netted about 30,000 bottles. Police claim the booze would have made people badly sick.

A nurse walks through the emergency ward at a Russian alcohol rehabilitation clinic. While Russians continue to be heavy drinkers, the World Health Organization considers their fight against alcoholism to be a success story. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

In one of the Sober Russia stings the CBC crew witnessed, a shopkeeper sold several bottles of beer to a volunteer after the 11 p.m. curfew. Then, with our cameras rolling, other members entered the store and confronted the employee, who quickly denied doing anything improper.

Grigoriev’s team then found several large plastic bottles behind the cash register that contained a mixture of alcohol and an energy drink.

“It’s like Red Bull, but with alcohol,” he said. “This is forbidden.”

Less boozy

Twelve years ago, Russians consumed roughly 15 litres of alcohol per person a year, which put them in fourth in the world rankings of the hardest-drinking countries. Now, in Russia, the per capita average is closer to 10 litres. (By comparison, Canada drinks eight litres per capita per year.)

Russia now ranks 14th in terms of alcohol consumption globally, and is comparable to France and Germany.

Notably, the proportion of strong liquor, such as vodka, in the overall mix of Russian alcohol consumption is down substantially, by 31 per cent.    

“Alcohol consumption has decreased a lot,” said professor Yevgeny Yakovlev of Moscow’s New Economic School, where he tracks Russia’s consumption habits.  

“We see that everywhere. Mortality from alcohol poisoning has decreased by 30 per cent,” he said. Yakovlev noted that suicides where alcohol is believed to have played a role have fallen by roughly the same amount in the past 12 years.

“In all of these measures, we see progress,” said Yakovlev.

Yakovlev credits aggressive government measures to restrict alcohol sales and to discourage use, such as increased taxation. 

Drinking in public is still common in Russia. (Mikhail Metzel/Associated Press)

While taxes on alcohol are politically unpopular, the World Health Organization notes that automatic yearly tax increases on booze have contributed to better health outcomes.

Earlier this month, Russia’s health ministry announced it was drafting legislation that could raise the country’s drinking age from 18 to 21. The Moscow Times newspaper cited a poll suggesting strong public support for the higher drinking age.

Healthier choices

Many Russians are making healthier lifestyle choices more generally, which are contributing to the significant decline in alcohol use.

At a gym in eastern Moscow, Yuri Sysoev and Alexei Forsenco have gone further than most Russians in promoting an alcohol-free lifestyle, both in their own choices and with their outreach.

“If I look back, well, basically, I had child alcoholism,” said Sysoev during a break from sparring with a partner in the boxing ring.

Now an actor and filmmaker in Moscow, the 31-year-old Sysoev said the 1990s were a difficult time in Russia. In the post-Soviet economic and political chaos, he said drinking was a means of escape for many.

“I was a little kid in the theatre playing [roles] of gnomes and hobbits, and I got pulled into [binge-drinking culture],” Sysoev said. About nine years ago, an epiphany about the destructive effect alcohol was having on his life prompted him to give it up entirely, he said.

Moscow film producers Yuri Sysoev, left, and Alexei Forsenco gave up drinking and took up fitness. Then they made a movie about why young people should follow their example. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Forsenco, his 37-year-old friend and business partner, said his story is quite similar, except it took him longer to come to the same realization.

“It wasn’t until I had kids of my own, about five years ago, that I understood alcohol could not be part of my family.”

Forsenco said the decision to abstain from booze often catches the foreigners they meet off guard. But he said no one should be surprised.

“We are new Russians. We don’t drink alcohol.”

The pair have made a short film that they are showing at Russian high schools. They are sharing their experiences with students in the hope of dissuading teenagers from repeating their mistakes.

Entitled The Outcast, the film features a teen walking through an apartment complex who is being taunted by his friends for not drinking after school. Instead of yielding to peer pressure, he stays the course and chooses the healthy option of a good workout.

“I don’t want to brag, but we are the first in Russia to be making a film like this,” said Sysoev.

At a recent showing, students peppered Sysoev and Forsenco with questions about their experience with alcohol and its destructive impact.

“We have to fight this,” Sysoev told the students. “Not with banners and meetings, but [you must] change yourself first, and then the world around you will change.”

While the film has been well received by students, the pair said they have also run into resistance from nervous school administrators, who are afraid The Outcast might portray Russia in a bad light.

While more Russians are opting for healthy lifestyles, Sysoev said there are still too many instances of people walking in their neighbourhoods and seeing what he calls an “alcohol apocalypse” — like drunks sleeping on benches or just staggering around.

“That’s why we wanted to make this film and send a message that a healthy lifestyle and healthy sport is right.”

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Health Ranger posts new microscopy photos of covid swabs, covid masks and mysterious red and blue fibers

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(Natural News) What follows is a series of microscopy photos of covid swabs (a synthetic swab, then a cotton swab), a covid mask and some zoomed-in photos of mysterious red and blue fibers found in the masks.

The magnification range for these photos is 50X to 200X. Most were taken with white light, but several (as indicated) were taken with UV light.

The images shown here are 600 pixels wide. We have higher resolution images available to researchers and indy media journalists; contact us for those hi-res images.

More microscopy investigations are under way, and new images will be posted as they are finalized.

First, this series shows the carbon fiber layer of a covid mask, illuminated with UV light:

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5,800 test positive, 74 die of coronavirus at least 14 days after getting fully vaccinated

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(Natural News) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday, April 15, confirmed some 5,800 breakthrough coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the U.S.

A breakthrough COVID-19 case is defined as someone who has detectable levels of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – at least 14 days after getting fully vaccinated against the disease.

Nearly 400 breakthrough cases required treatment at hospitals and 74 died. A little over 40 percent of the infections were in people 60 years and above and 65 percent were female. About 29 percent of the vaccine breakthrough infections were reportedly asymptomatic. The figures were for cases through April 13.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told a congressional hearing on Thursday that the causes of the breakthrough cases are being probed. “Some of these breakthroughs are, of course, failure of an immune response in the host. And then some of them we worry might be related to a variant that is circulating. So we’re looking at both,” she said.

The CDC is monitoring reported cases “for clustering by patient demographics, geographic location, time since vaccination, vaccine type or lot number, and SARS-CoV-2 lineage.” It has created a national COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough database, where state health departments can enter, store and manage data for cases in their region.

Where available, respiratory specimens that tested positive for COVID-19 will be collected for genomic sequencing “to identify the virus lineage that caused the infection.”

Positive test less than two weeks after getting fully vaccinated is not a breakthrough case

The number of cases the CDC has identified does not include people who contracted COVID-19 less than two weeks after their final dose. The two-week marker is important, said infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

A human body should have enough time to develop antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 after that timeframe. Before then, a person won’t necessarily have the built-up immunity needed to fight off an infection. According to Dr. Adalja, cases that occur before the two-week mark are not considered breakthrough cases.

Dr. Adalja also noted that more research is needed to determine if highly infectious variants of the virus are behind the breakthrough cases. “It is crucial to study breakthrough cases to understand their severity, their contagiousness and what role variants may be playing,” Dr. Adalja said.

More than 78 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in the U.S. as of April 15.

“To date, no unexpected patterns have been identified in case demographics or vaccine characteristics,” the CDC said in a statement. “COVID-19 vaccines are effective and are a critical tool to bring the pandemic under control.”

But the CDC conceded that “thousands of vaccine breakthrough cases will occur even though the vaccine is working as expected.”

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, agreed with the CDC. “These vaccines that we’re using are fabulous but they’re not perfect,” he said. “At best, they’re 95 percent effective in preventing serious illness, but minor illnesses can occur.”

According to U.S. drug regulators, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is 95 percent effective in preventing infection. Moderna’s was shown in a clinical trial to be 94.1 percent effective while Johnson & Johnson’s was 66.9 percent effective. Only Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which received its emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Feb. 27, was tested when variants were circulating.

The percentages are based on results from vaccine recipients two weeks after the final vaccination.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated in a briefing last week that the breakthrough cases are not a cause for concern.

“I think the important thing is to look at what the denominator of vaccinated people is. Because it is very likely that the number of breakthrough cases is not at all incompatible with the 90-plus percent vaccine efficacy,” he said. “So I don’t think that there needs to be concern about any shift or change in the efficacy of the vaccine.”

More info needed before drawing conclusions from breakthrough cases

The percentage of vaccine breakthroughs in a population depends on multiple factors, including vaccine efficacy, the amount of virus circulating and the length of time since vaccination, according to Natalie Dean, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida.

“I love to see small numbers as much as anyone, but know that numbers like this cannot be directly interpreted as a measure of vaccine efficacy (although I have a feeling they will be). We can only interpret them against a background rate in unvaccinated people,” Dean wrote on Twitter.

“Similarly, ‘most breakthroughs have been in elderly adults’ should not be read as the vaccine is less effective in elderly adults. The majority of vaccinations (and the longest amount of follow-up time) have been in elderly adults. Again, we need more info to interpret.”

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More people died from fentanyl overdose than coronavirus in San Francisco last year

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(Natural News) More people died from fentanyl overdose than coronavirus (COVID-19) in San Francisco last year, a microcosm of a larger nationwide problem coinciding with the pandemic.

Data from San Francisco’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shows that 708 people were killed by fentanyl in 2020, an astonishing 118 times more since the introduction of the drug in the city just five years earlier.

That figure nearly tripled the 254 COVID-19 deaths recorded in the city for the whole of last year. More than 8 in 10 deaths were male, and just under half were white. People aged 55 to 64 made up nearly a quarter of the fatalities. Nearly 40 percent of the deaths occurred in open-air drug markets such as the Tenderloin and South of Market.

The number of overdose deaths in the city could have been far worse as more than 3,000 addicts suffering from an overdose were administered with naloxone, the lifesaving medication that reverses overdoses.

San Francisco’s death rate from fentanyl overdose continues to rise this year as 135 died by overdose in January and February, putting the city on pace for more than 800 deaths by the end of the year.

The city has become a significant part of a larger trend. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data on Wednesday, April 14, showing that more than 87,000 Americans died from drug overdose over the 12-month period that ended in September last year – the highest since the opioid epidemic began in the 1990s.

Lockdowns lead to more cases of drug overdose

The surge represents an increasingly urgent public health crisis that may be correlated to the government’s monotonous battle plan against the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 19 last year, California became the first state in the U.S. to implement a stay-at-home order. It subsequently endured the longest lockdown of any state in the country.

The pandemic and accompanying lockdowns are believed to be partly responsible for the soaring number of drug deaths for obvious reasons. Lockdowns have badly disrupted the social services in the city, including drug addiction treatment. Drug experts say the isolation of the past 12 months is causing vulnerable residents to turn to opioids.

“We see the death and devastation getting worse right in front of us,” said Matt Haney, San Francisco Board of Supervisors member. “It’s an unprecedented spiraling, directly connected to the introduction of fentanyl in our city.”

Fentanyl first appeared on the streets of San Francisco in 2015. There were just six deaths from the synthetic opioid that year, 12 deaths in 2016 and 37 deaths in 2017. The figure skyrocketed when the drugs became widely available in the city in 2018.

Kristen Marshall, manager of the national drug harm reduction DOPE Project, noted the grim irony that while social isolation could save lives from COVID-19, it had undoubtedly contributed to the number of overdose deaths.

“Isolation is also the thing that puts people at the absolute highest risk of overdose death,” she said.

Pandemic exacerbates rise in deaths from drug overdose

The number of deaths from drug overdose started rising in the months leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, making it hard to gauge how closely the two phenomena are linked. But the pandemic unquestionably exacerbated the trend. The biggest jump in overdose deaths took place in April and May when fear and stress were rampant, job losses were multiplying and the strictest lockdown measures were in effect.

Many treatment programs closed during that time while drop-in centers, which provide support, clean syringes and naloxone, cut back services.

The data released by the CDC shows a 29 percent rise in overdose deaths from October 2019 through September 2020 compared with the previous 12-month period. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other synthetic opioids were the primary drivers, although many fatal overdoses have also involved stimulant drugs like methamphetamine.

Unlike in the early years of the opioid epidemic, when deaths were largely among white Americans in rural and suburban areas, the current crisis is affecting Black Americans disproportionately.

“The highest increase in mortality from opioids, predominantly driven by fentanyl, is now among Black Americans,” Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said at a national addiction conference last week.

“And when you look at mortality from methamphetamine, it’s chilling to realize that the risk of dying from methamphetamine overdose is 12-fold higher among American Indians and Alaskan Natives than other groups.”

Dr. Volkow added that more deaths than ever involved drug combinations, typically of fentanyl or heroin with stimulants.

“Dealers are lacing these non-opioid drugs with cheaper, yet potent, opioids to make a larger profit,” she said. “Someone who’s addicted to a stimulant drug like cocaine or methamphetamine is not tolerant to opioids, which means they are going to be at high risk of overdose if they get a stimulant drug that’s laced with an opioid like fentanyl.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) supported Dr. Volkow’s claim, saying that transnational criminal organizations cause a spike in overdoses by mixing fentanyl into illicit narcotics.

According to the DEA, Mexican cartels often purchase the drug components in China and use human mules to smuggle the narcotics to lucrative drug markets north of the border.

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