PRAGUE – The Czechs have a strong taste for alcohol. They are the world's foremost beer drinkers, and rank second for drinking hard liquor, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
This love of alcohol has taken a tragic turn with the appearance on the Czech market of large quantity of adulterated vodka and rum. Since August 7, 19 people have died in the Czech Republic of methanol poisoning after drinking cheap, bootleg liquor. Thirty more have been hospitalized; most of these have become permanently blind and are in artificial comas, in critical condition.
The Czech health minister, Leos Heger, is worried that the death toll will continue to rise, even though since September 12, the government has requisitioned inspectors, customs officers and the police to track down the producers and distributors of the ersatz alcohol.
The wave of alcohol poisoning, the worst in 30 years, has been especially serious in the underdeveloped northeast of the country. Eleven deaths and half the hospitalizations have occurred in the Ostrava region. There have also been deaths and emergency hospitalizations in central Bohemia and Prague. Most of the victims are older than 55, but the youngest is 21. Half the victims are women.
The government decided last week to ban all sales of alcohol by the glass in the innumerable small snack stands, food stalls and cafes of the Czech Republic. Last Friday, Mr. Heger widened the ban to include all alcohol sold in shops, restaurants and hotels. The penalties for serving alcohol, or even for not removing bottles from the shelves, are severe and include heavy fines and prison terms.
Customs officers and business inspectors have also launched an operation to check all the stocks of alcohol in the whole country in order to identify the provenance of each product. After three days of inspections, several thousand bottles have already been seized that show neither the required tax stamps nor labels by legally recognized producers.
In the town of Zlin, in southeastern Moravia, where several people died, police have discovered a warehouse with 500 liters of adulterated alcohol in a housing project garage. An illegal distillery with 5000 liters of alcohol was also discovered near Ostrava, the country’s third largest city. Police have begun a vast hunt for alcohol traffickers in the region, which borders Poland and Slovakia.
At first stunned by this wave of alcohol poisoning deaths, rare in Europe, the Czech media have now begun to ask vexing questions. Although liquor manufacturers and importers have been raising the alarm for several years about the soaring black market for alcohol in the Czech Republic, the government had not taken any measures against it, even though the black market has cost the state a great deal of tax revenue. Since the sharp increase in taxes in 2010, revenue has fallen by a third, but not alcohol consumption. The conservative government's budgetary rigor led it to reduce drastically the number of health, safety and business inspectors, and to concentrate most of its monitoring on foreign distributors. This gave restaurant, bar and liquor store owners almost total freedom to traffic in alcohol.