Minutes before midnight one day in mid-September two police, worn-out after hours of walking around pubs and bars, handed an official notification to an owner of a small club in Teplice, Bohemia.
Like most alcohol purveyors throughout the Czech Republic that night, the club owner was about to be informed of a government decree banning all drinks with an alcohol percentage of 20 and above. If he didn’t comply he would face up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of three million koruna (EUR 120,470).
Despite the widespread public attention to the series of methanol poisoning cases that claimed lives throughout the country during the preceding week, the prohibition came as a total shock to vendors as well as consumers.
Bootleg liquor death toll rocks Czech Republic
As this paper went to press 21 people had been confirmed dead at the latest count from tainted alcohol and more than three dozen were hospitalised. In some cases the victims went blind. A country that considers its breweries and distilleries an indisputable part of its national heritage suddenly finds itself a victim of the black market.
“At the moment only a ban on pork could make the situation worse for Czechs,” the Teplice bar owner, who agreed to speak to The Prague Post on the condition of anonymity, said.
With 55 million litres of drinks sold annually the alcohol business is a large and profitable industry in the country. In 2010 alone, Czechs drank an average of 9.8 litres of pure alcohol per person, 144 litres of beer and 19 litres of wine, according to the Czech Union of Alcohol Producers and Importers.
Sometimes nicknamed the Las Vegas of Eastern Europe for its loose attitudes toward booze and drugs, Prague is a favourite destination for fun-loving tourists. “It is my second time in Prague,” Graeme Sherlock of Glasgow said while on his way downtown. “I remember it as a friendly place with great atmosphere and cheap alcohol. That’s why we came. I don’t really care about the prohibition. Obviously these measures had to be taken for public safety.”
Not everyone agrees. The public understanding of the new measures has quickly evolved into a heated economic debate as clubs, bars, restaurants and importers alike begin counting their losses.
“The ban came into effect while we had a new season opening on our program,” said Kiro Tomoski, who runs popular club and restaurant SaSaZu. “The losses are devastating – as much as 40 per cent.”
Health Minister Leos Heger has announced the prohibition may last for at least a month.
“I consider the complete prohibition of all brands and products very unfortunate,” said the manager of another popular Prague cocktail venue, Roxy/NoD. “The problems occurred mainly at street stalls and stores where cheap alcohol is sold. If politicians don’t solve this quickly we will witness a series of lawsuits.”
Large producers of local spirits, such as Becherovka and Jelínek, announced on 17 September they would wait for another week for the prohibition to be lifted before they consider taking legal action against the government.
As a result of the ban restaurants are losing up to 200 million koruna (EUR 8.03 million) a day, according to a survey by Mag Consulting, a private firm. Meanwhile the state may be losing another 18 million koruna (EUR 722,717) – the amount it normally collects daily in excise duty on alcohol, according to the Czech Union of Producers and Exporters of Spirits.
Aside from economic loss the alcohol ban has galvanised a debate regarding local liquor consumption trends, and a probe into safety measures that have long been neglected.
The symptoms of methanol intoxication include headache, dizziness, nausea and lack of coordination. They are usually less severe than the symptoms associated with the ingestion of a similar quantity of ethanol. Within 10 to 30 hours of consumption a second set of symptoms arises, including blurring or complete loss of vision and acidosis as toxic levels of the substance accumulate in the bloodstream.
Illegal producers are able to dramatically decrease the price of production. The most widely sold brands causing fatal poisoning were vodka and local rum, as well as slivovice, or plum brandy.
“Everyone in our field has known for years that the situation is unbearable,” recalls the club owner from Teplice. “At least once a month some guy in sweatpants tries to sell me illegal booze. If I bought it I could save about 30-40 koruna per litre but who’s stupid enough to do that?”
Police have detained more than 20 people over the methanol affair. Authorities say the group includes small producers and sellers as well as large-scale traffickers.
The bootleg industry
Experts say the illegal alcohol market has been booming in recent years, due in part to rises in value-added tax. Investigative journalist Sabina Slonková compares the current situation to a scandal in the mid-1990s, which marked a series of gangland murders as differential tax rates led smugglers to pass off gasoline for light fuel oil.
“Not only the tax advantages but also the number of deaths is similar,” she said. “But in this case it’s not mobsters but regular consumers who are dying.”
Two years ago Slonková published a series of articles describing the local black market for alcohol. “One in two bottles is tainted,” one of her sources reportedly told her. “I would never drink booze in a pub.”
A Czech alcohol counterfeiter is immune to stereotypes, she says. “Small-time crooks sell only a few dozen bottles. It’s white-collar criminals who are running the illegal business, which stands exclusively on tax fraud. They get help from clerks, including customs officers. Tax avoidance estimates from the black market amount to tens of billions of crowns a year.”
All over Europe
Despite the specifics of the domestic situation, such methanol scares are not rare in Europe. Cases were recorded in Estonia in 2001 and in Norway a year later. Norway is also the source of the most effective antidote for methanol poisoning, formeziel, which toxicologist Knut Erik Hovda of Oslo University Hospital brought to the Czech Republic after the first cases erupted. “The number of deaths will rise, no doubt about it,” Hovda told The Prague Post. “In Norway we saw cases of poisoning even after a year or two. People simply forgot about the tainted alcohol, found a bottle on the shelf and drank it.”
Such a fear is noticeable among the Czech public. As avid drinkers in even the most low-key pubs around Prague confirmed, consumers will think twice before buying a bottle of rum or vodka in the future.
“I’d rather die than go blind,” says Jirí Písarík, a 62-year-old security guard, as he sips his fourth beer in Bráník pub, not far from Wenceslas Square. “I expected revolution but never prohibition.”
Hungary not immune
Back in the summer of 2007 customs officials discovered 14 illegal factories in eastern Hungary which had been converting window cleaning fluid into vodka. They found evidence that some two million litres of bootleg vodka had been produced but only found 5,000 litres. It was thought that the remaining 1,995,000 litres ended up behind the bars of low-end pubs or had already been drunk.
Such hooch is produced by removing glycerine, acetic acid, sodium hypochlorite and perfumes and colourants from alcohol-based window cleaning fluid. Alcohol-based cleaning products are often based on denatured alcohol. This is ethyl alcohol to which other chemicals (usually methanol) have been added to make the liquid poisonous and undrinkable. Methylated spirits, or meths, are usually a mixture of 90 per cent ethanol and 10 per cent methanol.