In this file photo, an employee takes a sample from a storage cylinder of Turkey's popular alcoholic drink rakı at the Infotex Alkollu Icecekler plant in the town of Dinar, Turkey, Nov. 30, 2017.

Pandemic’s deadly side effect: Global rise in bootleg alcohol poisonings

With a tanking economy and public health woes, Turkey sees a major uptick in the ingestion of methyl alcohol, which can cause severe injury or death.

The World

On Oct. 9, a Turkish hospital in the seaside city of Izmir reported the death of a man poisoned with methyl alcohol, a cheap industrial chemical.

The compound is colorless, has a strong alcohol odor, and is sometimes mixed into illegally produced liquor to cut the cost. Less than a tablespoon can kill a person.

In less than two weeks, 63 people died across 10 provinces in Turkey — more than the total number of suspected methyl alcohol poisonings over the two prior years. Those who survive ingesting the dangerous substance are often left with permanent blindness or brain damage.

Turkish authorities have jumped into action, raiding warehouses and arresting more than 70 people, according to state media.

Related: Counterfeit alcohol is a growing concern for tourists abroad

One pro-government newspaper speculated that one of the victims died after mixing a drink with fake ethyl alcohol that he had purchased online.

Others pointed to rising alcohol prices due to taxes on alcohol introduced by Turkey’s conservative government. The tax on rakı, a popular anise-flavored liquor, has risen by 443% over the past decade and taxes on beer by 365%.

“We will continue to say it insistently: The current situation concerning the production, consumption, and pricing of alcoholic beverages that causes deaths and injuries needs to be seriously reviewed,” Turkey’s Chamber of Chemical Engineers wrote in a statement.

Deadly methyl poisonings

But Turkey isn’t alone. This spring, more than 700 people died in Iran after rumors circulated that drinking high-proof alcohol could prevent the coronavirus. In a country without a legal alcohol market, that myth turned deadly. Then, 17 died in Arizona and New Mexico, in the United States, after drinking hand sanitizer made with methyl alcohol.

All told, the year of the coronavirus may be the worst yet for methyl alcohol poisonings since researchers like Dr. Knut Erik Hovda of Oslo University Hospital started to track it.

Hovda keeps a running spreadsheet of suspected outbreaks with the help of a multilingual search engine for local news reports and volunteers from Doctors Without Borders. This year alone, he’s tracked deaths in more than 25 countries, including India, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

“I think there is a recreational element, due to the fact that people are not at work, they’re at home, and they’re drinking alcohol. Or, they’ve lost their jobs, and they’re drinking because of that,” said Hovda. “We find thousands of people a year … but I think that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

“I think there is a recreational element, due to the fact that people are not at work, they’re at home and they’re drinking alcohol. Or, they’ve lost their jobs, and they’re drinking because of that."

Dr. Knut Erik Hovda, Oslo University Hospital

Deaths due to bootleg alcohol are deeply undercounted, he said. They always have been. Initial symptoms of methyl alcohol poisoning might look the same as a hangover or just a common illness. If a doctor doesn’t recognize what happened, the death might simply be attributed to drinking too much.

The pandemic has disrupted normal drug and alcohol smuggling routes, Hovda said, pushing illicit dealers to find local substitutes. Methyl alcohol, also known as methanol, is used as a fuel additive to reduce emissions in cars. But Hovda fears it is also becoming a more popular choice for unscrupulous alcohol dealers, because it’s widely available, and cheap.

“We know that the problem can escalate so much more than it is now, even,” Hovda said. 

'People find a way to drink'

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district is bustling with students and young couples, gathering at popular bars and cafés. The pandemic has done little to dampen their enthusiasm.

Outside a liquor store, a young man sells lottery tickets in front of shelves stacked with wine bottles. He ticks off the prices: 60 to 90 liras (about $9) for a bottle of Turkish wine. And more for imports. A small, 11-ounce bottle of the whiskey he prefers is 95 liras ($12). Tuborg, a Danish brand of beer, is 12 liras ($1.52) a bottle.

“The prices don’t affect the amount of customers,” he said. “People find a way to drink.”

These beverages cost a fair amount of money for most Turkish workers, who have watched their salaries lose half their value against the US dollar since 2018. Right now the economy is in a downturn, but the price of alcohol keeps rising.

When booze becomes unaffordable, some do cut back on drinking. Some buy it illegally. Others make their own. Turkey’s rising alcohol taxes have, perhaps inadvertently, fueled a boom in homebrewing and winemaking.

But the man selling lottery tickets — who didn’t want to give his name due to privacy concerns — says alcohol prices seem to be at a breaking point amid a perilous economic situation. He worries that deaths due to bootleg alcohol will continue to rise, but says, “God willing, it won’t happen.”

In the town of Edirne, near Turkey’s land border with Greece, homebrewer Yalçın Öngören, has watched a Facebook group he runs for amateur beer makers grow to more than 600 members. They swap tips and recipes, but also discuss the difficulties of finding specialized ingredients and equipment in Turkey.

“We actually had problems with customs this year. We couldn’t find any [brewer’s] yeast,” Öngören said. “We couldn’t find any beer kits, and we were like, what are we going to do?”

RelatedAn Iraqi liquor store has quietly reopened after ISIS

Methyl alcohol poisoning can happen accidentally when someone who is distilling their own hard alcohol does so improperly. Making one’s own wine or beer, in contrast, does not carry this risk. But drinkers, Öngören added, are on alert.

“When I started homebrewing and I served my beer to other people, they were like, ‘Are you sure this is not going to make me blind?’” he said.

While Öngören enjoys making beer, he worries about the people who — because of increasing taxes and a bad economy — feel pushed to make their own liquor. It’s a riskier process — and an illegal one. The winter could bring a rash of new problems, as people self-medicate and try to stay warm amid a new wave of coronavirus cases.

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