Drinkers turn to bootleg liquor amid shortage of imports
A string of 35 deaths from alcohol poisoning in Bangladesh over the last month has put the spotlight on the country’s bootleg liquor epidemic.
In almost all the cases, the drinkers died as the poor-quality liquor they had consumed was contaminated with methanol, experts said.
Drinkable alcohol, such as whisky, brandy, rum or beer, is made from ethanol. On the other hand, methanol is extremely toxic when consumed and commonly used in solvents, antifreeze and fuel.
"Methanol is highly toxic to humans and ingestion of just 10ml can result in blindness. Drinking 30ml or more is usually fatal within five or six hours," Dr ABM Faroque, professor at the department of pharmaceutical technology of Dhaka University, told Dhaka Tribune on Thursday.
Dr Faroque also said the recent incident where two private university students died, and one other was losing his sight after drinking alcohol at a restaurant in Uttara was an example of methanol poisoning.
“If law enforcement agencies are active, I think they can find the source of the bootleg alcohol as methanol is imported from abroad,” the professor added.
Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) Chief Chemical Examiner Dulal Krishna Saha said: “Many chemical traders are producing alcohol illegally in various places, but they do not even know the difference between ethanol and methanol. That is why bootleg liquor is so dangerous and why so many people are dying from methanol poisoning.”
Experts say ethanol and methanol are difficult to differentiate for casual observers, even though methanol is much cheaper. As a result, bootleggers endanger their customers in the hunt for quick profits.
A bottle of bootleg whisky or vodka can be produced for a little over Tk200 and the same bottle is then sold for Tk3,000-5,000, they added.
Bars reeling from pandemic, high import duty
According to the narcotics department, there are 186 bars that sell imported liquor and 203 local liquor shops across the country.
Bars in Dhaka have been struggling to cope with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, like other industries in the service sector. When this correspondent visited more than ten bars in the capital on Thursday, most owners told him they were currently only selling local liquor produced by Carew and Company to cut down on their costs.
The import of high-quality alcohol is all but suspended, they added.
Shahidul, manager of the local club LOKI, said the club had been without imported liquor for the last one month.
“We used to import liquor by paying a 300% duty, but we have not been able to bring in any liquor for the last month. Hopefully, the crisis will be resolved soon,” he added.
Hasan, a bartender at Chalet, said the bar was also out of imported liquor and no one knew when more would be brought in.
Asking to remain anonymous, a staff member of Dhaka Club said: “We have not been able to import any liquor for the last one year because of Covid-19. We only have a couple of bottles of single malt whisky left at the bar.”
Crackdown on diplomatic warehouses
Several sources at the Department of Narcotics Control said the government crackdown on illegal liquor sales at diplomatic warehouses was the reason for the shortage in imported liquor in Bangladesh. There are also plans to impose higher duties on liquor imports.
A DNC deputy director told this correspondent: “We are struggling to deal with the diplomatic warehouses. They used to import liquor for diplomats and foreigners at very low prices, but we came to know that some people were collecting huge amounts of liquor from the warehouses and selling it to the local bars for a quick profit.
“We have become stricter on the warehouses, which is why less imported liquor is being seen around the city,” the DD added.
On condition of anonymity, a warehouse manager told Dhaka Tribune: “There is plenty of stock at the port, but the shipment is not being cleared because of some problems with the local administration, DNC and the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP).”
A source at Chittagong port told Dhaka Tribune a huge amount of imported liquor had been stuck at the port as the warehouses had not received it.
Mohammad Azizul Islam, director (admin) of the Department of Narcotics Control, said: “We planned to impose a higher duty on imported liquor last year, but it is still pending due to Covid-19.”
In response to a question, DNC Chief Chemical Examiner Dulal Krishna Saha said: “Most bars had been closed for seven months due to Covid-19, so liquor imports were stopped as well. Now, they have reopened the bars and sold off all their stock already. Once shipments begin again, everything should return to normal.”