Illicit liquor: What you see is not what you get

In the unregulated world of illegal alcohol, toxic ingredients like methanol, ethylene glycol, acetone and additives like colourants and flavourants are used to make products. Production often occurs under unhygienic conditions – filthy floors, dirty drums, unwashed bottles, etc. have been reported.

Carine Marks, director of the Tygerberg Poison Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, particularly warns against methanol and ethylene glycol.

Methanol is a flammable liquid with a distinctive odour very similar to, but slightly sweeter than, ethanol (drinking alcohol). It is commonly used as fuel, solvent or antifreeze). Depending on the concentrate, it can cause comas, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and headache and tremors. Visual impairment may develop, which may range from blurry/hazy vision to colour vision defects to “snowfield” vision to total blindness. High doses can be lethal. Ethylene glycol is an odourless, colourless, syrupy, sweet-tasting liquid. It is widely used as automotive antifreeze. It is toxic, and ingestion can result in seizures, renal failure and death.

Marks also suspects that incidents of methanol and ethylene glycol poisoning are largely unreported due to the fear of prosecution by all parties concerned.

Economic impact of illegal liquor

Alcohol fraud is costing countries huge losses in revenue and also threatens the livelihood of honest and legitimate liquor businesses. According to Riaan Kruger, CEO of the South African Liquor Brandowners’ Association (SALBA), the illicit liquor trade in spirits alone, accounts for a loss of R472m ($58m) in value added tax (VAT) in South Africa. The UK has recently reported that alcohol fraud accounts for up to £1.2bn ($1.9bn) per annum in lost tax revenues.

The accusation is often made that governments are to be blamed because excise and import duties on alcohol stimulate the illicit liquor trade. Studies have shown that it may to a certain extent apply to developed markets where cheaper alternatives would be sought. But the same studies established that in developing countries, where consumers have often less disposable income, taxes have little or no impact.

To combat the illegal trade, various government and private agencies work in combination with the police and revenue services. They try to track down the origin of base products, production and distribution points and outlets.