Bootleg Alcohol in AsiaFrom champagne to sake to lambanóg, it is apparent that alcohol consumption has firm cultural and aesthetic roots in countries all over the globe. Despite its enduring popularity, countries sometimes reflect the dark side of alcohol consumption. Counterfeit, bootleg alcohol in Asia continues to thrive and endanger the lives of many, especially lower-income individuals.

An Unaddressed Epidemic

The problem of fake alcohol has roamed around Asia for countless years. Unregulated distilleries and bathtubs produce counterfeit alcohol before it is distributed under the radar. It is estimated that up to 30% of alcohol in China is fake, with illegal alcohol having infiltrated even well-established bars and pubs under the guise of well-established liquor brands.

Much of the incentive in producing bootleg alcohol in Asia often comes from high import taxes on liquor, or even so far as government prohibition in certain countries. With higher restrictions on liquor sales, many people choose to turn to the black market as their only option.

Various countries have suffered from the effects of counterfeit alcohol. In Indonesia, 300 people have died from consuming counterfeit alcohol between 2014 and 2018 alone. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that half of all liquor consumed in India is contraband. This causes numerous cases of methanol poisoning, drunk driving incidents and exacerbating domestic abuse incidents. In 2019, 154 individuals in India had died from methanol poisoning alone.

Consequences, Risks and Poverty

Bootleg alcohol, typically made of dangerous chemicals, disproportionately affects communities facing poverty. Living in poverty is a leading risk factor for alcohol consumption.

Multiple factors make alcohol consumption particularly more threatening to poor communities. The addictive nature of alcohol combined with the weaker support networks and resources (counseling services, healthcare systems, etc.) in low-income communities make these populations vulnerable to prolonged alcohol abuse. Alcohol expenditure could limit the total amount for individuals to spend on food, healthcare and education. Most importantly, the health risks and hospitalization fees associated with alcohol could further exacerbate many families’ financial situations.

The risks associated with poverty and alcohol consumption combined with the cheaper price tag of bootleg alcohol in Asia further amplifies the problems faced by low-income communities. The WHO states that the limited medical resources for poor communities lead to high mortality rates for methanol poisoning.

What Now?

Counterfeit alcohol in Asia continues to run rampant for a straightforward reason: it is taboo. This taboo also makes it highly neglected. Although the WHO encourages public health campaigns addressing illicit alcohol production, few have tackled this issue head-on.

Organizations such as the Methanol Institute (MI) are one of the few that chose to lead the movement in addressing undocumented alcohol production. MI has partnered with countless organizations such as Mitsubishi, BP and Methanex. It provides market support and public awareness for methanol poisoning from counterfeit alcohol.

As of 2013, MI partnered with Lifesaving Initiatives About Methanol (LIAM) to create a pilot campaign in Indonesia to provide community education for citizens to recognize bootleg liquor and combat methanol poisoning. In December 2014, MI-LIAM-trained hospital staff were able to save the first two lives from methanol poisoning. As of 2015, MI-LIAM received funding to continue its effort in Indonesia. Moreover, they garnered approval to expand training in Vietnam.

While bootleg alcohol in Asia continues to be a persisting problem, awareness efforts have slowly highlighted the seriousness of this epidemic. As a handful of brave organizations spearhead efforts to mitigate this issue, many of us hope for others to follow along this path to recovery.

– Vanna Figueroa
Photo: Flickr