Slovaks ban Czech booze as bootleg poisoning scare widens

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 18, 2012 12:17 PM
Slovaks ban Czech booze as bootleg poisoning scare widens

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovakia banned the import and sale of Czech spirits on Tuesday after 22 people died in its central European neighbor from drinking bootleg vodka and rum containing poisonous methanol.

The Slovak move followed a similar ban in Poland on Sunday and showed that Czech authorities have not been able to bring their biggest health scare in decades under control.

The Czechs introduced a ban on all liquor containing more than 20 percent alcohol on Friday, forcing retailers to pull 20 million bottles off the shelves and dealing a blow to pubs and cocktail bars serving locals and tourists alike.

Slovakia followed suit after eight Slovaks were taken into hospital in the eastern town of Presov on Sunday after drinking Czech-made spirits at a party.

"We ... came to a conclusion that it is necessary to prevent further consumption and sales of any Czech-made alcohol in Slovakia," Slovak Healthcare Minister Zuzana Zvolenska told reporters.

Agriculture Minister Lubomir Jahnatek said the ban would remain in place until Czech authorities gained control of the situation.

Four of the poisoned Slovaks were sent home on Tuesday and the other four were in good condition, the Healthcare Ministry said. Some 700 customs officers were visiting sites across the country together with police to test suspect spirits.

Apart from the deaths, dozens of other people have been admitted to hospital in the Czech Republic with methanol poisoning in the past two weeks, and some have gone blind.

Czech police have arrested 23 people on suspicion of producing or distributing the poisonous bootleg alcohol, a profitable business that avoids excise and value-added taxes.

The country's spirits makers estimate up to 25 percent of the alcohol in circulation is bootleg - often cheap vodka and rum made from industrial alcohol via a simple chemical process and sold under fake labels.

Police have been investigating how methanol got into the spirits. One theory is that it may come from windscreen wiper fluid, possibly from Poland.

Methanol can sometimes result from home distillation, common in the Czech Republic, if it is done clumsily, but the victims said they had purchased bottles at kiosks and stores.

The Czechs, makers of the original Pilsner beer, have the world's highest beer consumption of about 140 liters per capita per year and are among the world's heaviest drinkers in general.

(Reporting by Martin Santa and Jan Lopatka)