Czech government plans to ease liquor ban

Photo: CTK

Less than a week after sales of hard liquor in the Czech Republic were banned in response to the ongoing methanol crisis, the government has announced plans to ease the partial prohibition. Newly produced liquor, tested for the presence of methanol, should be made available within some two weeks’ time. The Czech authorities are also facing criticism from the European Commission which says they should ban exports of Czech spirits to protect consumers in other EU countries.

Photo: CTK
Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek on Wednesday night ordered the printing of new excise stamps to seal bottles of newly produced spirits. That’s one of the conditions the Czech government laid down for easing the ban on spirits sales, introduced on Friday to protect consumers from methanol-laced liquor. Prime Minister Petr Nečas briefed reporters about the details of the plan.

“All spirits will have to have what we call a pedigree, a certificate of origin that will show which batch of ethanol they were made from. It will also register their distribution path from the producer to the retailer. Spirits will also have to be certified for safe levels of methanol and denaturizing agents. Bottles of newly produced spirits will be sealed with new excise stamps.”

Mr Nečas also suggested the ban could be lifted in some two weeks’ time, depending on how fast the certification process will be put in place.

Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
Lifting the ban on spirits sales is good news for Czech liquor producers as well as bars, restaurants and pubs. It will also be good for the state which is daily losing an estimated 25 million crowns, or nearly 1.3 million US dollars, in tax revenues.

But the liquor industry might suffer further losses due to a potential ban on exports of Czech spirits to other EU countries, which the European Commission is pushing for. Only two countries – Poland and Slovakia – have banned imports of Czech spirits so far while authorities in Germany have merely warned consumers against liquor from the Czech Republic.

However, the commission argues that consumers in all EU countries should enjoy the same level of protection against potentially dangerous spirits as those in the Czech Republic, and has asked the Czech government to suspend exports of Czech spirits as soon as possible. Frederic Vincent is the spokesman for European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli.

Photo: CTK
“What we are saying is very simple: we think that the measures that are being applied on the domestic market in the Czech Republic when it comes to the sales of drinks with over 20 percent volume of alcohol, should also apply to exports from the Czech Republic of Czech-made or Czech-bottled drinks.”

The Czech government’s reaction to the demand by the European Commission has been evasive. Prime Minister Nečas said the government would try to limit the damage on liquor exports; Agriculture Minister Petr Bendl promised to inform his counterparts from other EU countries at a meeting in Brussels next week about the situation in order to avoid possible sanctions. But the European Commission has threatened to act swiftly, as Commissioner Dalli’s spokesman Frederic Vincent explained.

“Our response is: as soon as possible. Indeed, there is a meeting agricultural council in Brussels next week. But the health crisis has been going on for some time now and we saw a number of casualties in the Czech Republic and many people are hospitalized. So we think that as soon as possible is better than next Tuesday. And if not, the commission will take the necessary measures.”

Meanwhile, the methanol crisis in the Czech Republic continues. Tests have confirmed methanol poisoning of a 53-year-old man who was hospitalized on Wednesday in the north-eastern town of Frýdek Místek. Another man in Liberec, in northern Bohemia, was taken to hospital on Wednesday after drinking methanol laced-liquor from a bottle sealed with an original excise stamp. Analysis showed the bottle contained 50 percent of methanol.