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Based on research that bucks common perceptions of the drinks, the US-based International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP) says it believes most "moonshine" - alcoholic drinks produced illegally in a market - represents no threat to health.

The findings have been published in a book produced by ICAP called "Moonshine Markets," a new book. 

"This book breaks new ground by filling gaps in our knowledge of locally produced alcohol, including consumption patterns," says Marcus Grant, President of ICAP. 

"In some countries, we found that moonshine outsells commercially produced alcohol by a 4:1 ratio. Yet until now moonshine has been neglected by the scientific community, partly due to the difficulty in collecting data on a product that is often illegal."

Among the findings is that toxic moonshine is the exception, not the rule. Samogon, drunk widely in Russia, provides evidence, ICAP said. 

Chemical analyses of 80 samples of samogon, a distilled spirit with an alcohol content similar to vodka, but not to be confused with counterfeit vodka, showed that half were characterized as alcohol beverages of "rather high quality." 

"According to a recent survey, rural Russians drink 4.8 times more samogon than vodka.  Most explain their preference for samogon by the high price of official vodka. The average price of samogon was 15-20 rubles per 500 ml bottle compared with 40-50 rubles charged for a bottle of vodka," ICAP said in a statement.

The studay said some 30-40% of Russians surveyed made samogon themselves. The average cost of producing 0.5 liters was 8-10 rubles, or one-fourth the price of officially sold vodka. A 2001 survey in Russia found that mean yearly consumption was 16 liters of absolute alcohol - 13.2 liters from samogon and 2.7 liters from vodka.

However ICAP did say that an occasional "bad batch" slips by even careful local alcohol producers due to unhygienic production processes, resulting in poisonings and generating alarming global press reports.

And some unscrupulous producers flout quality controls, adding such toxic substances as battery acid, urea, and ammonium chloride to their products in order to obtain higher strengths of alcohol.  These products can have alcohol content as high as 60%.

"But considering the amount of illegal alcohol that is drunk worldwide, alcohol produced this way is relatively rare," ICAP said. 

The book notes that moonshine beverages are produced at low cost.  For non-factory produced alcohol, no advertising is needed, and there's no brand name to sustain. There are no storage costs or transportation costs, and no tax to pay, although sometimes a bribe is customarily paid to an enforcement officer. Purchasers may be have to use their own containers. Low costs are passed on to consumers.

Contributor Eric Single, a Canadian researcher, said: "Small-scale noncommercial production also brings certain economic benefits to local economies, providing employment and income (often supplemental income) to producers and lower priced alcohol to consumers.

"Indeed, in Russia, there are situations where money is scarce and noncommercial alcohol actually becomes an alternative to the official currency," Single said.

Dr. Simpson said, "I suspect that every country in the world has a moonshine currency."


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