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Tragedy in Libya Underscores the Dangers of Home Brews
In early March, waves of people suddenly began showing up in emergency rooms across Libya’s capital city of Tripoli suffering from some sort of mysterious condition. It did not take long for medical professionals to realize they were looking at the symptoms of methanol alcohol poisoning, and, after questioning the victims, it was discovered that all had gotten sick after drinking homemade alcohol that had been brewed illegally and covertly purchased through Libya’s thriving black market. As the days unfolded, the magnitude of the situation soon became evident, and eventually more than 1,000 people were hospitalized or forced to seek medical treatment as a result of the poison they had consumed. So far, 87 of these victims have died, while dozens more are suffering from blindness, kidney failure or have lapsed into a coma.
Because alcohol is prohibited in this conservative Islamic nation, all the liquor consumed there is manufactured in secret locales or smuggled across the border from neighboring nations. It is known that illegal brewers sometimes add various substances to the alcohol they produce to make it more potent, and the list of these additives includes industrial alcohol that was not meant to be consumed by humans and can be extremely dangerous if used in more than trace amounts. Methanol is a type of industrial alcohol, so some have speculated that the people responsible for brewing the contaminated batch of liquor that poisoned more than 1,000 in Libya were simply trying to give their product an extra kick and mistakenly overdid it. But until a full investigation can be conducted, the possibility that this mass poisoning was intentional cannot be ruled out. Libya has seen much turmoil and strife over the last two years, and given how widespread the consumption of illegal unrecorded alcohol is in certain areas of the country, a terrorist or revolutionary group looking to cause chaos and mass death could conceivably have been responsible for this incident.
A Hidden Scourge
Earlier in the year, Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health released the results of an extensive global health study that was carried out to determine what factors were most responsible for injury and illness around the world. The consumption of alcohol came in third on the list, behind only high blood pressure and smoking, and one of the specific findings of the study that generated attention was the revelation that 30 percent of all the alcohol being ingested around the world is of the unrecorded variety, produced illegally by home entrepreneurs or in private semi-industrial setups owned and operated by organized criminal networks.
While prohibition may play a role in stimulating its production in some places, the primary reason so much illegal alcohol is being brewed and consumed is price. Thanks to low production costs, the lack of any state taxation, and the elimination of retailers as middlemen, home brewers are able to sell their products far more cheaply than the purveyors of the legally sanctioned variety, which perhaps explains why rates of illegal alcohol consumption are highest in economically-deprived parts of the world (33 percent of the alcohol consumed in Latin American, 50 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 65 percent in Southeast Asia is home brewed).
The Elusive Search for Solutions
Incidents of illegal alcohol poisoning such as that in Libya are all too common, and they do serve to illustrate the risks those who choose to drink illegal alcohol are taking whenever they consume these products.
But there is much more to the story than this. The presence of so much cheap booze in certain places clearly helps fuel excessive drinking in general, and the fact that illegal liquor almost inevitably contains a higher concentration of alcohol than would be found in legal beverages only enhances its capacity to contribute to the problem of addiction. Treatment for alcoholism is not widely available in the poorer areas of the world where most illegal alcohol is being consumed, so unrecorded alcohol consumption is undoubtedly contributing to runaway addiction in places where day-to-day existence already presents daunting challenges, even for those who choose to remain clean and sober. Making the situation worse, international criminal networks are taking control of the illegal alcohol trade in many places, and these distant parasites are draining significant financial resources from communities that desperately need those funds to support productive local business activity.
Normally, the use of alcohol can be managed and restricted through political and legal initiatives—passing new taxes, raising the drinking age, toughening up licensing requirements for potential retailers, etc. But unfortunately, when alcohol is being bought and sold on the black market, no such benign intervention is possible, leaving the sellers of these potent and occasionally lethal intoxicants free to peddle their products without any consideration of their effects on families and society. Worldwide rates of addiction are almost certainly being increased by the consumption of unrecorded alcohol, and there do not appear to be any easy answers for those looking to confront this aspect of the problem.