After a series of alcohol poisonings, the Czech Republic had banned the sale of hard liquor. Now, Czech officials want the ban to be lifted. Neighboring Poland and Slovakia also imposed a ban on Czech-made-alcohol.
Police in the Czech Republic are racing to find the source of an outbreak of fatal alcohol poisonings that claimed the lives of at least 23 people. All alcohol stronger than 20 percent has been banned as authorities deal with the crisis caused by bootleg spirits containing the chemical methanol, which is used among other things for making anti-freeze and windshield washer solvent.
An organization representing Czech spirits producers has said as much as 20 percent of all hard alcohol sold in the country is produced illegally. Czech Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek has now proposed selling alcohol only with a government-approved seal. Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas said this new measure would help sales to pick up again.
Banned for safety reasons
Poland followed Slovakia in banning Czech-made alcohol - except for beer and wine. Polish authorities said they seized 119,000 bottles of strong Czech alcohol.
"This doesn't mean that the bottles contain methanol, but their sale will be banned for safety reasons until we have the results of the tests," said Jan Bodnar, spokesperson for Poland's national health inspectorate.
Customs officials in the Polish city of Kielce seized 194 bottles without excise stamps.
"They probably contain methanol," said Joanna Kepa, a spokeswoman for the local customs authorities in Kielce. "The bottles and their labels resembled those shown in material issued by the Czech police."
The death toll of the country's worst outbreak of alcohol poisoning in decades has climbed as people have been drinking from what they thought were cheap local versions of rum and vodka. Police have seized even larger quantities of bootlegged spirits in raids across the country.
"The most serious case comes from the fire department, which is helping the police with this investigation," said Czech Health Minister Leos Heger. "They identified - in various barrels - a total of 260 liters [70 gallons] of alcohol with a methanol content of 20 to 30 percent. That's the most toxic dose imaginable."
Antidote: drinking alcohol of good quality
The authorities have registered about five cases of methanol poisoning each day, mostly concentrated in the depressed northeast of the country, with some cases reported elsewhere, including Prague. When methanol is metabolized in the body, it begins to cause irrevocable damage to vital organs, and can cause blindness, liver failure and often death. Paradoxically a dose of drinking alcohol - ethanol - can halt the metabolizing process, so the best thing victims can do is down a shot of high-quality spirits.
Help has also arrived in the form of an effective although expensive antidote called fomepizole. Eighty boxes of fomepizole - enough to treat around two dozen people - were donated by Norway, and rushed to Prague by poisons expert Knut Erik Hovda from the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Centre in Oslo.
"It's highly effective. It binds extremely strongly to the enzyme, meaning if you are admitted early enough to hospital, we're pretty sure we can save your life," Hovda said. "The problem being that a lot of these patients are admitted fairly late. It depends on their clinical condition when they're admitted to hospital; that tells us something about the outcome of the patient. But the fomepizole itself is highly efficient."
Hovda was depicted as something akin to an angel in the Czech media, and fomepizole has now been administered in a number of cases. Czech authorities are now reported to be buying up supplies of the drug.
But as police continue to seize bootlegged booze and arrest those involved in producing and supplying it, the legitimate industries that sell and serve alcohol are feeling the effects of a form of partial prohibition introduced by Heger.
A customs officer shows some 200 bottles of conviscated alcohol found in two apartments in Kielce, Poland
Bars and restaurants are trying to come up with ingenious "prohibition cocktails" containing liqueurs such as Baileys and Kahlua, which have alcohol contents of less than 20 percent. The big producers, meanwhile, suffering a massive hit in profits, are mulling legal action to win compensation for the shortfall in profits. Some bars warn they could go out of business.
Alcoholism a more serious problem
Veteran anti-alcohol campaigner Karel Nespor said while he had great sympathy for the victims of the methanol crisis, it threatened to overshadow a far more serious health problem facing society - that of regular alcohol consumption.
"Of course it is a very unpleasant and painful experience for many people and their families. But a much, much greater number of people are killed not because of methyl alcohol but because of ethyl alcohol, because of so-called high-quality alcoholic beverages," he said.
According to figures from the World Health Organization, the Czech Republic has the second highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world after Moldova, although most of that is accounted for by Czechs' huge consumption of beer.