Alcohol prohibition seeks to stem methanol threat

Photo: CTK

Almost three days after a country-wide ban on sales of hard liquor was put in place, the number of people hospitalized as well as deaths resulting from methanol poisoning has not abated. The announcement about the 21st victim dying in a hospital in Ostrava came early on Monday morning. The Czech police claim to be making significant progress in tracking down the sources of alcohol with excessive amounts of methanol, but no clear picture of how the spate of poisonings became so widespread has emerged yet.

Photo: CTK
The weekend saw at least nine more people hospitalized with methanol poisoning in the Czech Republic and two more people have died after ingesting excessive amounts of methyl alcohol in Přerov and Ostrava. The authorities have taken more extreme measures in the last few days and have stepped up investigations. Health Minister Leoš Heger announced on Friday evening that all beverages with alcohol content of 20 percent or more could not be sold anywhere in the Czech Republic, until further notice. The minister has said the blanket ban is necessary for now, but some have already expressed concern over the economic impact of the unprecedented prohibition. Deputy Finance Minister Ladislav Minčič spoke about how much the state will lose in tax revenues:

“The losses may be as much as three quarters of a billion crowns a month. Also, a much more sophisticated black market may develop as a result, which will be more complex and widespread than the current one. Its fiscal impact may be much more severe.”

Ladislav Minčič
As bars opened on Friday night, owners complained of a significant drop in sales. Yet, police noted fewer than 15 violations of the ban after carrying out tens of thousands of inspections in restaurants, stores, street stalls and bars all over the country throughout the weekend. Supermarket employees worked night shifts from Friday to Saturday removing prohibited alcohol from the shelves. Public health officials and firefighters tested hundreds of samples of contraband alcohol and found more than three dozen bottles with illegal amounts of methanol. Václav Kučera, a deputy to the police president and head of the special task force Metyl, spoke about the dozens of barrels that the police discovered in private homes and illegal distilleries:

“There are different amounts of methyl alcohol in all of them, some even had ten times the permitted amount. Currently we are looking at hundreds of thousands of liters of poisonous alcohol.”

Photo: CTK
The police have charged 12 more people over the weekend over distribution and illegal production of alcoholic beverages, bringing the total number to 23. Authorities believe that the distribution of bootleg liquor with illegal amounts of methanol works in a so-called pyramid. Although the poisonings were most likely not the intention, but the result of the illegal distributors’ attempt to save money. According to the head of the investigation in Zlín, Martin Balaš, the last suspect who was charged on Sunday was at the top of at least one of the distribution chains:

“So far, all the paths of the investigation have led us to this person. They had strictly set roles – there was the purchaser, the mixer and the person who would eventually sell the products.”

The police have also started searching for distributors of the raw methanol that was used in mixing the noxious beverages, and are currently working under the assumption that there is one main source of the substance.

Leoš Heger,  photo: CTK
Health Minister Heger said on Sunday that he will try to find ways to limit the scope of the ban as soon as possible, but not until the source of all the poisonous liquor is found and the number of victims has fallen. The methanol scare has also spread beyond Czech borders. Polish authorities banned all hard liquor produced in the Czech Republic over the weekend. Four people in Slovakia were hospitalized with methanol poisoning on Sunday after drinking what they claimed was slivovice (plum brandy) made in the Czech Republic. But Slovak authorities have not instituted a ban like their Polish neighbors.