'KGB Pill' Promises to Cure Hangovers
By Alex Nicholson
Igor Tabakov / MT
The pill's key ingredient is succinic acid.
James Bond may have had X-ray sunglasses and rocket-firing cigarettes, but for years his counterparts from behind the Iron Curtain were popping pills that made them impervious to ... hangovers.
This is the kind of hype the so-called KGB Pill -- marketed as RU-21 in the United States -- has generated over the past month, fueled in part by a devoted clientele of actors, models and their managers on the Hollywood party circuit who swear by the drug to escape the aftereffects of a night on the town.
"I went to this big event and had a little too much wine," said Leo Rossi, a veteran of some 60 movies but perhaps best-known for his role as the tattooed ******* who incited a rape in the Oscar-winning "The Accused."
"I thought, whatever, I figure I'll pay the price. After all, we don't get any younger," he said by telephone from Los Angeles.
He said he did not have a hangover and now puts out a bowl of the pills for guests at parties.
While the Russian origins of the pill have been well publicized, little attention has been given to the fact that RU-21 -- a dietary supplement that regulates the process by which alcohol is broken down in the body -- has been on sale in Moscow supermarkets for the past three years under the name Antipokhmelin, or Anti-Hangover.
SKS-Alyans, the company that produces and markets the pills in Russia, works with scientists and medical consultants at the Zdorovye Institute to develop long-forgotten Soviet-era medical inventions. In the pipeline are a caffeine-free energy drink and drugs to help smokers quit.
"Finally these scientists can implement the projects that they have been working on for the past 20 years," SKS-Alyans president Alexander Kashlinsky said.
But he is a bit worried about the attention being paid to the alleged KGB origins of the hangover pills.
In a society where the fruits of scientific research were applied almost exclusively to the defense and security sectors, there is little doubt that KGB agents had access to pills similar to Antipokhmelin, Kashlinsky said.
But its use by the nomenklatura was much better documented, even earning it the nickname obkomovskaya tabletka, or "the pill for the regional committee."
"It wasn't widely available," he said. "They didn't want the broader public to use it so they could show they were always working and always fresh, though they drank more than anyone else."
This is exactly the image that SKS-Alyans' U.S. affiliate, Spirit Science, is trying to sell in Hollywood.
"This whole KGB thing -- you'd think it would be negative," said Emil Chiaberi, a U.S. national of Georgian descent who runs Spirit Science out of offices in Beverly Hills.
"But everybody says that it adds credibility to the product, so apparently they trust the KGB, which, certainly for me, is surprising," he said.
Hollywood fans of the pill said its benefits go far beyond easing a heavy head.
"I take two tablets a day regardless of whether I drink or not," independent producer Warren Kohler said by telephone. "I use the supplement with my daily vitamins."
Model Beverly Peele, who was photographed in an RU-21 T-shirt for Chiaberi's web site and first tried the pills on New Year's Eve, warned that they would not give heavy drinkers carte blanche for excess.
"It's not for people who want an interesting cure for alcoholism. If you're drinking like an alcoholic then just go to a drug clinic or alcoholics anonymous," she said.
While in Russia the marketing has been low-key and the emphasis is placed on the pill's hangover-tempering effect, RU-21 is being promoted overseas as a product that not only protects the liver but regulates cell metabolism and even improves the complexion.
Given Russians' legendary love of drinking, the local market could offer huge opportunities. "The use of this product could be much broader. We hope eventually to sell under the RU-21 brand here," Kashlinksy said.
Currently, Antipokhmelin is selling steadily in stores across the country at 24 rubles (about 75 cents) for a six-pill pack.
Over in Beverly Hills, Chiaberi said his team of four is working round the clock to handle the 12,000 to 15,000 inquiries it receives every day. His www.ru21.com
offers 12 20-pill packs for $60.
Research into the key ingredient in the pills, succinic, a colorless, crystalline dibasic acid found in amber and many plants, has been going on since the 1960s at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Biophysics in Pushshino in the Moscow region. In developing the pills, scientists found that rats injected with lethal doses of alcohol survived or stayed alive longer when treated with succinic acid.
Spirit Science's web site explains the process like this: "RU-21 balances alcohol metabolism by slowing down the process of ethanol oxidation into acetaldehyde [which causes hangover symptoms], so less acetaldehyde occurs in the first place, and then speeding up the process of acetaldehyde decomposition into acetic acid and then water and carbon dioxide."
As a dietary supplement, the pill does not require regulatory approval in the United States. Its fans said this does not bother them in the slightest.
"None of the vitamins on the shelves here in the U.S. go through that testing either," Kohler said.
Informal research conducted by The Moscow Times found that six tablets effectively annulled the aftereffects of 2.5 liters of beer..