Amid a recent string of nineteen deaths attributed to methanol poisoning, the government of the Czech Republic has categorically banned the sale of all alcoholic beverages with an alcohol content of 20 percent or greater. On top of these latest deaths, dozens of other people have been hospitalized, some in critical condition after drinking vodka and rum laced with methanol.
The ban, which was announced last Friday by Health Minister Leos Heger, went into effect immediately and applies nationwide to all possible sales locations, including restaurants, hotels, bars, stores, and the internet. This new ban comes on the heels of a previous ban in which kiosks and markets were forbidden from selling spirits with an alcohol content of greater than 30 percent. That measure ultimately proved ineffective, however, because “an absolute majority” of people who have recently been poisoned bought the toxic alcohol in restaurants, bars and stores.
Methanol is mainly used for industrial purposes, but nefarious criminal networks have been known to misuse it in their efforts to illegally produce and sell cheap liquor that is impossible to distinguish from real drinking alcohol. Thousands of liters of illegal alcohol have already been seized and almost 20 people have been arrested, but police spokeswoman Stepanka Zatloukalova said Friday that the true source or sources for the worst methanol poisoning “in decades” are still unclear. Estimates state that about 20% of all liquor in restaurants sold across the Czech Republic is illegally produced on the black market
Despite the problem appearing to be largely centered in just the northeastern Czech Republic, businesses across the country are being hurt by the government’s sweeping action. The indefinite duration of the ban is making this prohibition even harder to swallow for local businesses. In Prague, restaurant manager Jonathan Weinstein said the financial loss associated with a short ban may be easily absorbed, however, if it “were to last a month or two, of course, it’s a big problem.” Petr Pavlik, chairman of a Czech union of spirits producers also weighed in, explaining that the government’s action will take its toll on legitimate producers as well
In light of the indefinite duration of this ban, what effect is it likely to have on businesses which depend on the sale of alcohol to turn a profit? Aside from a nationwide ban, what else could the Czech Republic, or any other government, do to curb the production of unsafe, illegal liquor while still allowing businesses to go on as usual? Is an outright ban on the sale of this liquor appropriate government action or is it too paternalistic? Should government officials simply have warned the public of the danger and taken no further action?