When cheap booze turns into a public health crisis

By Richard Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Malaysia: High tax rates and easy access to bootlegged liquor. Pic:getty/omersukrugosku
Malaysia: High tax rates and easy access to bootlegged liquor. Pic:getty/omersukrugosku

Related tags: Alcohol, Safety, Malaysia

Upwards of 40 people died last month in Malaysia from methanol poisoning. Why has this happened - and what can be done? It's time for some answers, says food and beverage journalist Richard Whitehead in this guest article.

At the end of a long night out in Kuala Lumpur, we ended up in one of the dodgier bars in the suburbs, the sort of place you regret visiting in the morning, which itself wasn’t far beyond the horizon.

As usually happens at such a late hour, we ordered a bottle of something Scottish, which soon enough arrived with a bucket of ice and some mixers. At this time, most drinks are bought by the bottle, which is then “parked​” behind the bar if it isn’t completely finished.

Cooking whisky, I call it. Cheap, effective and not something to dwell on for too long — whatever the house has available.

The bottle, as usual, had been opened at the bar, so we tucked in. It was too late to savour the flavour, which the sugar content of the mixers masked as usual.

I don’t remember much else that night, and woke the next morning with a splitting headache that stayed all day, accompanied by extreme nausea and lingering disorientation.

You might think these were classic signs of a well-deserved hangover, but I knew something was wrong. I’m one of those lucky people who rarely gets a hangover, beyond feeling a bit second-hand the next day.

As an expat in KL, where drinking well into the night is commonplace, I knew this was something more than punishment for the night before. Mentioning to the friends I had been with, who all felt much more out of sorts than they should have, we agreed that we had probably been drinking something distilled in a back yard, bottled to look like a brand and sold on to some of the less salubrious bars of the city.

That was the first time this had happened to me, but the others—expats for far longer than me—were well-versed in the practice. We got off lightly, though, considering the dreadful deaths that occurred in KL last month of people drinking fake alcohol.

Death toll

The latest press reports suggest a death toll of some 40 souls from methanol poisoning and rising, with scores more hospitalised. Royal Malaysian Customs Department officers have been investigating a series of incidents that originated in the Sungai Buloh district on the outskirts of the capital.

They claim to have carried out more than 220 raids and seized 4,000 litres of suspect liquor, including counterfeit bottles of brands such as Grand Royal whisky, Kingfisher Extra, Cap Kapak, Camel Strong, Mandalay and Club 99. At last count, 34 people had been arrested.

The victims had, as many Malaysians do, bought the liquor from “hole-in-the-wall​” stores in a bid to bypass Malaysia’s extreme tax rates, which range from 150-560%. Most of these outlets are reputable and tolerated by authorities, but the ones behind the poisonings will have been far less principled.

The incidents have raised the perennial issue of potentially lethal alcohol once again, but it is not a topic that interests the press and politicians to any great extent or prompts any real public debate. Given how quickly many people here are given to outrage, the response has been muted.

Deafening silence

In the five days from September 18, as 29 deaths were recorded, far more popular topics among Twitter users concerned the exploits of K-pop stars. It is alarming that the deaths of so many people in such a short time did not spark an outcry, or really register on the national consciousness.

Perhaps this is because Malaysia, with a religious settlement that sees Islam as the religion of political power and enforcement, widely views deaths from alcohol poisoning as less deserving of public sympathy than from other causes.

Or maybe the fact that most of the victims were overwhelmingly poor immigrants from countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar and Nepal, with just a handful of Malaysians, might well insulate locals from the tragedy. No matter how much Malaysia claims to be a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation, it is a common complaint that people on the whole rarely show much interest in the plight of foreign labourers in their country.

As The Star, Malaysia’s leading English-language daily, put it: “It is an unpleasant truth that the lack of widespread strong reaction is partly because the victims are mostly foreigners, and because many regard alcohol consumption as a vice​.”

Meanwhile, the human resources minister, M. Kulasegaran, has tamely urged bosses with foreign workers to keep an eye on their drinking habits.

Tax vs bootlegging

The situation has, however, has exercised the local drinks industry, which blamed high levels of taxation and easy access to bootlegged liquor for countless poisonings.

We have been aggressively highlighting such concerns to relevant government departments to step up enforcement, fearing such tragedies would occur and now it has​,” said the Malaysia Liquor Manufacturer and Bottler Asso­ciation in a statement.

We suspect the products involved are fakes and most likely smuggled into Malaysia under the guise of parallel imports of the original product​.

These are not Malaysian products nor are they bottled by licensed local bottlers​.”

The association said it has been warning for years about the black market in alcohol thriving on high taxation, imposed in October 2016 by the finance ministry.

Insufficient enforcement coupled with high tax rates sealed the fate for such tragedies to occur​,” it added.

Questions to answer

At least the alcoholic drinks industry is acknowledging a stark fact that has yet to register with the nation’s politicians and authorities: that Malaysia is facing a massive public safety crisis and must take measures to deal with it before something similar happens again.

How was it that so much ethanol-laced liquor was allowed to be distributed? Imagine what could have happened if Customs hadn’t seized the hundreds of bottles suspected of being part of the same batch before they had found buyers.

Why have the authorities not been vigilantly co-ordinated enough to monitor and tackle smuggling rings in a bid to prevent crises like this latest? Already with more than 30 people arrested, it seems like these criminal groups were well-organised and widespread.

And why hasn’t the government acted yet, at least by setting up an investigation into how this affair happened, and the implications of extreme excise on alcohol?

Politicians have been warned countless times by experts about a link between high taxes and bootlegging. It is not an unusual phenomenon in other countries, so there is much to be learned. Perhaps they enjoy this easy income too much. Or in a country where most people do not drink alcohol, and those who do mostly opt for high-end bottles, Malaysia’s political leaders look down on those who cannot afford to pay full price.

In other countries, it is not inconceivable that approaching 50 deaths from one scandal could put a government under pressure, but Malaysian lawmakers appear to have little interest in what happened, and its public seems to be turning a blind eye to events.

When some shelves are packed with potentially fatal liquor, we know it is time for definitive answers to these questions.

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