There’s been an alarming trend in deaths from methanol poisoning. 1st May, 2 foreigners died from suspected methanol poisoning in Ipoh. 2nd May, a 33 year old Indian local also died from methanol poisoning, also in Ipoh. And very recently (17th June), 6 men in different cases died on the same day from methanol poisoning after drinking cheap liquor in Penang. AND THEN (18th June), 4 more people died.
All had similar symptoms – varying degrees of blurred vision, nausea, sakit perut and vomiting, most being pronounced dead within the same day, since symptoms can be hard to tell until 12 to 24 hours later. Last year, 33 peeps died by September from poisoning as well, on top of 87 cases of methanol poisoning that month, which is why authorities have started clamping down heavily on illicit alcohol.
But why do these fake booze manufacturing buggers make such bad alcohol? Isn’t it just fermenting something?
Fake alcohol kills just by skipping one very important step.
Most of us have had a drink or two, and probably through either reading the label or watching some promo video that alcohol is generated from fermentation of sugar (glucose). These sugars (found in wheat, barley, rice, grapes or coconut etc) are broken down using yeast or certain bacteria, generating ethanol and carbon dioxide. Ethanol is usually what’s commonly labeled as the ‘alcohol content‘ of a drink.
BUT, some types of plants have high levels of a gelatinous substance called pectin, which after fermentation generates another type of alcohol called methanol. Unlike ethanol, when methanol is broken down in the body, it forms toxic by-products: formic acid (same toxin found in ant venom), lactic acid and formaldehyde, which leads to the symptoms of those poor unfortunate souls we talked about earlier. 🙁
Oh and it also causes blindness, which is why the popular myth that a drink is so strong it’ll make you go blind, is sadly true, as a 32- year old Indian national in KL, experienced last September when he bought an RM8 bottle of booze.
“After arriving at the Bangsar LRT station from home, my eye sight started to become blurry before everything went dark. I panicked and sought help from friends, who were nearby,” – Radha Krishnani, NST, Sept 2018
To our surprise, we found out that many legal AND popular alcoholic drinks you consume DO have methanol in them, but it’s in very small and controlled amounts (duhhh… don’t want to lose customer right?). To ensure this, commercially legal booze is monitored very closely, and excess methanol is removed from the final products. Usually, the methanol removed is then used for other purposes such as varnishes, antifreeze, windscreen wash, solvent, pesticides, plastics, paints, cosmetics and fuels.
But in the case of illicit low-cost breweries (like home brewers), they ferment the same ways, but skip any sort of methanol quality control. Why? Because the process is more expensive and reduces production volume, so most wouldn’t bother removing the methanol from the drinks.
“In premium breweries, there are technologies that extract methanol out of the brew. It is fuel for race cars. Many low cost breweries do not have that kind of technology, so the chance that their brews have methanol is high.” – said P. David Marshel, president of the Malaysian Anti-Cheap Liquor Movement.
But that’s not the worst part yet. According to WHO, sometimes methanol is “deliberately added to fortify informally-produced spirits and illicit alcoholic drinks”. And then, according to fake alcohol watchdog Safeproof, replica branded bottles are filled with the counterfeit booze.
“They (Illicit alcohol manufacturers) use the original bottles that they buy from nightclubs, restaurants or pubs and refill them with their own blend of liquor or spirits. They even mix them with perfume so that the aromas smell like the original.” – a wine and liquor distributor company manager explained.
Although WHO said that these drinks are generally sold in illegal drinking venues and also legit bars mostly in tourist areas, small traders and retailers are often targeted by illicit alcohol manufacturers to sell their contraband alcohol in Malaysia because the manufacturers know that such businesses won’t question much for background info.
After watching the video, it’s unclear if the alcohols in sundry shops (and KK Marts) is actually manufactured to national standards. Having watched the video, and seen the police photos, we would advise caution for now. But the amount of cases also points to cheap alcohol being consumed fairly widely…
It’s also partly because booze taxes are quite high in Malaysia
A bottle of beer here costs at least about RM8-RM15. In Vietnam, you can get one for RM3-4. So why’s that? Well… taxes. Malaysia has alcohol tax rates of 150-560%! So if you need hooch on a regular basis, the only options might be illicit ones.
It didn’t help that in 2016, the finance ministry increased the excise duty (defined by the customs as “a type of tax imposed on certain goods imported into or manufactured in Malaysia”) for locally-produced alcohol in Malaysia by 150% to RM60 per litre. This makes Malaysia’s excise duty rate for beer the third highest in the world after Norway and Singapore.
“The contraband beers are those which contain 12% to 18% alcohol by volume (ABV) and retailed at extremely low prices below RM5 for a 500ml can. For obvious reason, the selling price of RM5 is a strong indicator that excise duty and import tax of approximately RM18 for these products are not paid.” – said Lars Lehmann, managing director of Carlsberg Brewery Malaysia.
The Malaysian Liquor Manufacturer and Bottler Association said that the black market in alcohol thrives on high taxation and insufficient enforcement on smuggling of fake alcohol.
“In Malaysia, demand for affordable liquor is high and any tax increase boosts the incentive for such activities as the alcohol trade becomes more lucrative. These illicit operators do not pay any form of tax and hence stand to make about 200% to 300% in profit.” – the Malaysia Liquor Manufacturer and Bottler Association said.
Other Asian countries like China and some European countries also have high taxes, proven to be fueling the incentive for the black market at the expense of the legal alcohol market, according to Spirits Europe.
One example was how Greece’s excise duty rate on spirits increased by 125%, leading to the strengthening of the black market and increased tax evasion while legal spirits sales have fallen by nearly half in 6 years becos of a significant switch in consumption to products with almost no tax.
Perhaps that’s why a Malay Mail writer has proposed lowering these alcohol taxes to make sure that the poor don’t have to resort to buying fake booze.
Whoah! Okay so how can I avoid methanol poisoning!?
First, ensure that you buy from credible sources. May we suggest our friends at BoozEat downstairs from CILISOS offis? There are also a few things to watch out for such as low pricing, unfamiliar labeling, no tax label, condition of the liquid and dates of manufacturing and expiry.
At press time, we are unsure if some of the alcohol brands shown such as Club99, Black 99 or Axe whisky which are commonly found in convenience stores are actually from regulated distilleries. We would welcome clarification, as they do not seem to have dedicated websites. However, we did find a local distributor that says they are real.
For the time being, we’d advise caution until we can clarify further. We would also advise purchasing any sort of high-proof alcohol product from a non-regulated source, e.g. a road-side vendor. Yes, there have been cases in other SEA countries of methanol poisoning from rice wine and toddy even, although these seem to be fine unless the maker adds MORE methanol to make it stronger. So yea, if it ain’t legit, stay away from the strong stuff.
IF you suspect that you kena methanol poisoning (tomach ache, breathing difficulties, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, severe headache as well as leg cramps) after having a suspicious drink, check into your nearest hospital! Also, warn your friends of the potential dangers, especially if they’re regular drinkers of the less than regular drinks. Treatments might involve some decontamination, use of a buffer, or use of ethanol to block the breakdown of methanol.
Oh, and regardless of what you drink,