Authorities in the Czech Republic have outlawed hard liquor sales after at least 23 deaths from bootleg alcohol poisoning. But the ban is stirring the ire of bar and restaurant owners in the tourism-dependent country and raising fears it will only drive more drinkers to buy suspect spirits on the black market.
The action announced Friday on sales of beverages with 20% or higher alcohol content has swept more than 20 million bottles of alcohol off store shelves in the Eastern European state renowned for its beer but also a major producer and consumer of stronger drinks.
On Wednesday, President Vaclav Klaus called the ban "an unreasonable and exaggerated solution" to the rash of poisonings and likened it to Prohibition, according to the Ceske Noviny website. During a visit to Italy, Klaus in part blamed the poisoning crisis on what he called "absurdly high taxes" imposed by the government and said the known deaths and dozens of nonfatal cases of methanol poisoning demonstrated "a fundamental failure of the state" to ensure safe spirits production.
A nationwide search for the source of the toxic spirits has led to the seizure of large barrels of alcohol with methanol content over 30%, as well as 94,000 government stamps from an unlicensed bottling plant that had been issued for an authorized producer, Deputy Interior Minister Jaroslav Hruska told a news conference in Prague on Wednesday, Ceske Noviny reported.
The tainted drink that was the source of some of the poisoning deaths was sold under counterfeit labels of legitimate Czech distillers, Hruska said.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas said the government was working to develop new inspection and certification procedures that would allow the liquor market to reopen but that the ban needed to remain in place until those safeguards could be applied. Liquor already produced and now impounded will have to be tested and stamped as safe before sales can resume, Necas said. He also called for requiring any new production to be government tested and its contents fully labeled.
Deputy Finance Minister Ladislav Mincic said the proposed new inspection and labeling measures will take about three weeks to implement.
Knut Erik Hovda, a Norwegian toxicologist brought in by Czech authorities to administer an antidote to methanol poisoning, warned in an interview with the Oslo newspaper Verdens Gang that the Czech alcohol ban could backfire by pushing those intent on drinking hard liquor to seek it on the black market.
"The tourism industry is dependent on alcohol sales. In this situation, people are obtaining alcohol by other means and problems are only escalating," Hovda said.
According to statistics of the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Czech Republic is the fourth largest per capita consumer of alcohol in the developed-nations club.
While the hard alcohol ban is expected to drive up beer sales in the nation that is already the No. 1 per capita brew consumer, the Czech Beer and Malt Brewers Assn. has joined in the business community's complaints that the ban will be damaging to tourism and the national economy.
-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: An employee sealed off the liquor department of the Makro hypermarket in Ostrava, Czech Republic, on Friday, when the government imposed a ban on sales of all beverages with 20% or higher alcohol content. Methanol-tainted spirits have been blamed for at least 23 deaths and dozens of poisonings in the country this month. Credit: Jaroslav Ozana / CTK / Associated Press