23 die from alcohol poisoning after passage of law banning sale of ethyl alcohol for home use

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Twenty-three people in Turkey have died from alcohol poisoning since a new regulation entered into effect on October 1 banning the sale of ethyl alcohol for use at home.

Eleven people out of 18 sickened died in the western province of İzmir after they were hospitalized with complaints of nausea and loss of vision after allegedly consuming bootleg alcohol, the Diken news website reported on Sunday.

Five of 13 who fell ill also died in the southeastern province of Mersin, the Bianet website reported on Monday.

Seven people died in Kırıkkale province last week from the same cause.

Police have reportedly detained scores of suspects as part of investigations into the poisoning incidents caused by illegal alcohol production.

The recent deaths came as no surprise to many in the face of steep alcohol taxes under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

With the latest official adjustments to prices, the tax rate on a single bottle of rakı, Turkey’s popular aniseed-flavored spirit, has risen to 234 percent in 2020.

In addition to the deaths, increasing bootleg alcohol production in Turkey is also confirmed by other indicators such as plunging sales of legally produced rakı and booming sales of ethyl alcohol.

As a result of the frequent tax hikes, rakı has turned into a luxury product and many flats into micro-breweries. Critics say that more and more people are making their own alcohol to avoid soaring taxes imposed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP.

Total consumption of alcoholic beverages in the country fell by 89 million liters in 2019, a 29 percent decrease over the previous year, according to the Tobacco and Alcohol Department of Turkey’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

An increase in the sale of ethyl alcohol, or methanol, in recent years also shows that consumers have resorted to producing or consuming risky home-made alcoholic beverages. Producers reportedly mix ethyl alcohol with aniseed flavoring or oil when producing bootleg alcohol. 

In response, the AKP first urged producers in 2018 to add denatonium benzoate, a bitter chemical substance, to ethyl alcohol sold in Turkey in an attempt to stop its use in bootleg spirits. Producers, however, later found a way around the bitter taste.

Thus, a new regulation entered into effect on October 1 banning the sale of ethyl alcohol for use at home.

Turkey has faced repeated cases of alcohol poisoning under the AKP’s disapproval of the consumption of alcoholic beverages. In 2013 the AKP had introduced bans on selling alcohol after 10 p.m. and on shops within 100 meters of a mosque. Like tobacco products, the advertising, promotion and sponsorship of alcoholic products are also prohibited.

Nevertheless, the consumption of bootleg spirits claimed 23 lives in June, Reuters reported in July. The Chamber of Chemical Engineers (KMO) said at the time that the deaths were a “direct result of the high taxes.”

The conservative President Erdoğan declared in a speech in 2013 that Turkey’s national drink was ayran, a yogurt-based refreshment, but not rakı, which is known as the Turkish national drink, affectionately dubbed “Lion’s Milk.”

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