> Britain’s Fake Alcohol Problem - The Food Safety Company Britain’s Fake Alcohol Problem - The Food Safety Company
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    Tuesday, 10 January 2017

    Britain’s Fake Alcohol Problem

    Img: Food Standards Agency 
    Throughout December, you might have spotted a series of disturbing news articles reporting scores of deaths in the Irkutsk region of Siberia, where residents were said to have been drinking scented bath oil as a cheap alternative to alcohol. According to Sputnik News, the death toll, which had reached 76 by the New Year, now stands at 78, with 45 others having been taken sick due to dangerous levels of methanol in the product. In such a context, the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has reiterated its warnings regarding fake alcohol: and, as it turns out, the problem is surprisingly common in Britain.

    Although the exact number of cases of alcohol poisoning caused by illicit liquors in the UK remains unclear, the industry itself is known to be enormous. HMRC claims illegal alcohol sales cost the UK government £1.2 billion annually – mainly because the criminal industry doesn’t pay tax. In August 2015, for example, Trading Standards officers seized 130,000 litres of counterfeit vodka from an illicit factory in Wigan, said to be worth £1.7 million in unpaid duties.

    However, those costs don’t take into account the strain placed on the National Health Service by people being taken ill after drinking unlawfully-made alcohol. For example, the FSA claims that fake vodka is often made with chemicals used in anti-freeze, screen wash or nail polish remover. Beverages derived from these ingredients are therefore much more likely to cause illness than their above-board counterparts, diverting resources away from the NHS, which was described by the Red Cross last week as being in a state of ‘humanitarian crisis.’ 

    Speaking to the BBC in 2011, Stuart Crookshank, a spokesman for HMRC Inland Protection, claimed: ‘If you're playing with alcohol, it's a pretty toxic product anyway even under health and safety conditions and properly manufactured…You do it in some backroom distillery where the conditions are absolutely dreadful and the product, you don't know where it's come from. It's positively dangerous.’

    Indeed, the FSA warns that illegal alcohol can leave you blind, comatose or even dead; leading to fresh warnings that those who are considering buying it should not take the risk. Still, in order to help those trying to avoid accidentally purchasing the stuff, the FSA recommends consumers check for the 4 P’s:
    • Product: ‘Vodka is the most counterfeited spirit. Watch out for fake versions as well as brand names you have never heard of.’
    • Price: ‘If the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.’  
    • Packaging: ‘Watch out for poor quality labelling including spelling mistakes and tampered bottles.’
    • Place: ‘Buy from a reputable off-licence premise.’
    What’s more, if vodka smells like acetone or nail varnish, it’s most likely illegal and therefore potentially dangerous.

    Considering the sheer size of the illicit drinks industry, there’s hardly any doubt that health problems arising from such products are widespread. Indeed, the problem may be particularly acute around Christmas and New Year, as Simon Blackburn, a spokesman for the Local Government Association, explains (seemingly every year): ‘New Year's Eve is the biggest drinking night of the year but people need to avoid suspiciously cheap, fake alcohol at all costs because it could seriously harm your health, and even kill you.’

    In various ways, then, the industry for illegal alcohol ultimately costs the taxpayer a staggering amount of money each year. It also causes a significant number of deaths and is a big enough problem for the government to continually issue warnings regarding its use. Perhaps, therefore, it’s time we all became more aware of the trade’s prevalence in British society, in order to curtail the consumption (both deliberate and accidental) of the dangerous beverages it proliferates. 

    James Stannard

    James has a Bachelor’s degree in History and wrote his dissertation on beef and protest. His heroes list ranges from Adele to Noam Chomsky: inspirations he’ll be invoking next year when he begins a Master’s degree in London.
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