In the 2010s, Russia's economy suffered from a financial crisis, depressed oil prices, and international sanctions put into place during the Ukrainian crisis. With less disposable income to spend, citizens were forced to take drastic measures. In 2017, for instance, approximately half of the country's population was growing fruits and vegetables to supplement their diet, caused in part by a doubling in food prices in the preceding two years.
For alcohol, these citizens—already one of the highest consumers per capita in the world—turned to surrogates, a cheaper but unregulated segment of the alcohol market. Russia's deputy prime minister remarked that such non-traditional alcohol made up twenty percent of the total consumed in the country, a figure backed up by independent reporting from the Moscow Times, which noted that the total was still growing. Such a large consumption of unregulated alcohol led to a "regular occurrence" of alcohol poisonings, but the death toll in this single incident was far higher than the norm.
The hawthorn-scented bath lotion, or boyaryshnik, that caused the mass methanol poisoning was purchased as a drink because of its low price amid poor economic conditions—such liquids were not subject to the alcohol excise tax, which had been increased as part of an anti-alcohol effort in 2009, or other restrictions placed in recent years to help curb alcohol consumption in the country. Although the bottles are typically half the size of traditional vodka, their alcohol content is such that they can be diluted into a strength similar to vodka. Moreover, they were often available from vending machines at any time of the night, while government-regulated liquor could only be sold within legally defined hours. The machines were often deliberately placed near poorer areas of Russian cities, where the product would be appealing to those seeking a cheaper alternative to regular alcohol. "Everybody knew that it was not bath oil," one individual told The New York Times after the poisoning. "That label was just meant to fend off the inspectors."
The fatal batch of lotion involved in this mass poisoning was made with methanol (methyl alcohol, wood alcohol, CH3OH), which is poisonous to the central nervous system and other parts of the body. Methanol is cheaper than ethanol (ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, CH3CH2OH), the alcohol found in vodka and other alcoholic drinks. The two alcohols are similar in many respects and cannot readily be distinguished. The contents differed from the labels on the bottles, which indicated that they contained ethanol—specifically, "93 percent of ethyl alcohol, hawthorn extract, lemon oil, diethyl phthalate and glycerol".
According to early reports, a total of 57 people were hospitalized, with 49 dying. The victims were described as being poor residents of the Novo-Lenino neighborhood in Irkutsk, all between the ages of 35 and 50. Subsequent reports increased the number affected: first to 55 deaths (with a total of 94 affected), then 62 (with 107 affected), 77 (number of affected not given), and finally down to 74. The other three had drank too much regular (ethyl) alcohol. About a third of them were found in their homes, having died before being able to call for an ambulance. Of the remainder, a problem in attempting to treat them was that fomepizole, a methanol antidote, is not certified for use in Russia and is therefore not available in the country's hospitals. Overall, the victims included a doctor, teachers, nurses, and drivers; the majority were described as holding "steady if low-paying jobs."