By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech government may partially lift a ban on the sale of liquor next week while the search for the source of poisonous alcohol that has killed 23 people continues, Prime Minister Petr Necas said on Wednesday.
The EU member state took the unprecedented step last Friday of banning all sales of liquor in shops and pubs - a dramatic measure in one of the world's heaviest-drinking countries - after dozens of people drank bootleg spirits laced with deadly methanol.
Neighboring Poland and Slovakia have banned the import and sale of Czech-made liquor with over 20 percent alcohol content, and Hungary has warned stores not to sell suspect spirits.
Liquor makers and importers have complained they are losing millions of dollars per day on the ban, which they say will become counter-productive in the longer run as it will boost the illegal market. An estimated 20 million bottles of booze have been pulled from shelves in shops and bars.
"It must be our priority to renew the functioning of the alcohol market as fast as possible, in two steps, the first of which will be allowing newly produced alcohol," Necas said.
"Every batch will carry new stamps which will be printed within several days, certainly it should be manageable during next week."
Every batch would also need laboratory certification.
Apart from the deaths, several dozens were hospitalized in the Czech Republic, and some have gone blind. Three people in Poland and eight in Slovakia were taken to hospital.
The Czech union of spirit makers has estimated that up to a quarter of all liquor sold in the country of 10.5 million people is bootleg, mostly made from industrial alcohol, cleaned up through a simple chemical process and sold under fake labels.
The illicit booze trade is centered in the country's industrial north-east, near the Polish border. Industry insiders say that the trade has grown since a hike in the excise tax on alcohol in 2010, which was part of austerity measures in the global economic crisis.
Still, the Czech tax of 11.45 euros ($14.95)per liter of 100 percent alcohol, or some 2.3 euros per a half liter of 40 percent liquor, is among the lowest in the EU.
Police suspect the deaths were caused by an unwitting substitution of deadly methanol for the industrial ethanol which is commonly used to make illicit liquor.
Methanol can sometimes result from clumsy domestic distillation, but the widespread contagion suggests a large-scale operation. Police have found 260 liters of 20-30 percent methanol in one of their raids, and have charged 29 people.
"The police are gradually reaching the highest levels of an organized mafia structure," Necas said.
Police have also found thousands of liters of illegal alcohol that did not contain methanol, and one raid discovered 100,000 fake tax stamps to mark bottles.
Jan Becher-Karlovarska Becherovka, the maker of herb liqueur Becherovka which is popular among tourists, said on Wednesday it would suspend production in the coming days due to the ban.
"The loss for us at the current time is several millions of crowns per day in sales," Operations Director Vladimir Darebnik told Reuters.
The Czechs, makers of the original Pilsner beer, have the world's highest beer consumption of around 140 liters per capita per year and are among the world's heaviest drinkers in general.
(Additional reporting by Jason Hovet in Karlovy Vary, Gergely Szakac in Budapest and Chris Borowski in Warsaw; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)