Steep taxes fuel bootleg alcohol consumption in Turkey

Rising government taxes on alcohol in Turkey in recent years have increased illegal production of alcoholic beverages, causing deaths among people who consume the toxic liquors despite health warnings and crackdowns.

Officials suspect methyl alcohol poisoning was behind the deaths of seven people in the southern city of Mersin in one week. The victims were among nearly two dozens of people hospitalized over suspected alcohol poisoning since last week.

The offbeat part of this so uncommon story in Turkey is that the person who produced the toxic beverage also drank it and died in hospital.

Police launched an investigation into poisonings and raided four businesses that the authorities believe selling fake liquor. Six suspects have been charged with attempted manslaughter over the deaths and all were released under judiciary control.

Methyl alcohol is a cheaper substitute for ethyl alcohol, an expensive chemical element in the composition of genuine alcoholic drinks, and is usually used by sellers of bootleg or fake alcoholic drinks.

Bootleg liquor killed 34 people in one month in 2015, the highest death toll from alcohol in the country in such a short period.

On July 3, the Turkish government raised the Special Consumption Tax on alcohol and tobacco by 15.5 percent for the second time this year, angering consumers.

Turkey is a constitutionally secular and mostly Muslim country. Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol which is sold under regulations.

The taxes on alcohol have increased steadily and now account for two thirds of the cost of some alcoholic drinks, such as the raki, Turkey’s favorite liquor.

In Ankara’s residential Hilal neighborhood, a liquor shop owner explained to Xinhua how illegal producers are proliferating and why people are turning to them to buy cheap booze.

“We only sell legal products here but increasing taxes on alcohol have become unbearable, both for us sellers because the business is going bad and for clients alike,” said Suavi, who declined to give his surname.

“We are aware of illegal alcohol production warehouses in some districts where hundreds of liters of liquor is shipped every week to specific vendors known by clients who prefer it because it’s less than half the price of the legal booze,” he said.

“There is a great risk indeed for producers who can face prison charges and also for clients who can die if the liquor is not prepared adequately, but nevertheless it’s a lucrative business,” Suavi added.

Consumers have turned to social media to express their discontentment of government taxes, calling for a boycott even though only a small portion of Turkey’s 82 million people drink alcohol regularly.

And in recent years, with hefty price hikes on alcohol, people have started home distilling, against which the government is also fighting, arguing that it leads to tax evasion.