Czech officials will keep a nationwide ban on hard-liquor sales for at least a “few” more days as police probe an illegal alcohol network after spirits laced with methyl-alcohol killed people across the country.
Police have charged 23 people with various crimes related to making and spreading poisonous substances after raiding 40 premises, Deputy Interior Minister Jaroslav Hruska said today.
The worst case of mass alcohol poisoning in 30 years forced the government to impose on Sept. 14 an indefinite ban on sales of hard liquor across the country as police and customs officers searched for the source of the contaminated beverages. While the measure locked about 20 million bottles of spirits in warehouses and hurt liquor makers and hospitality businesses, the government isn’t considering easing it for now, Health Minister Leos Heger told reporters in Prague.
“Declining profits, in the context of 19 and potentially more deaths, are a lower priority at this moment,” Heger said. Easing the ban “won’t be a matter for consideration in the next few days.”
The Health Ministry has 19 confirmed deaths caused by methanol, while police register 20 deaths and are awaiting autopsy results from five more cases, Stepanka Zatloukalova, a police spokeswoman, said by phone today.
As many as 35 people have been hospitalized, with five new cases of poisoning occurring in the past 24 hours, Heger said.
Police have uncovered a chain of producers and distributors who supplied tainted drinks to retail outlets, bars and kiosks.
“The investigation conducted so far clearly shows that the cases are related,” police President Martin Cervicek said yesterday. “We have progressed to a group of people that may be related to organizers, or possibly to importers of the base material.”
Two people in neighboring Slovakia were hospitalized with cases of “lighter poisoning” after drinking plum brandy bought over the Internet in the Czech Republic, Heger said. Slovakia today joined Poland in banning the sale of liquor imported from the Czech Republic. Both countries border the Czech Republic.
The ban on sale and serving of all spirits with more than 20 percent alcohol content “is prohibited until the recalling of this extraordinary measure,” according to a statement posted on the government’s website. The ban includes both domestic and imported liquor, it said.
The Czech ban is hurting the budget as the state collects about 750 million koruna ($40 million) a month in taxes from hard liquor sales, according to Ladislav Mincic, a deputy finance minister. A longer ban would “complicate” efforts to cut the budget gap, he said Sept. 16.
The tainted alcohol was sold in bottles under fake labels from at least two Czech liquor makers and the bottles weren’t properly sealed, according to police. The poisonous drink was offered at discounts in bottles labeled as vodka or tuzemak, a local rum-like alcoholic beverage. Several people went blind or fell into coma after consuming it.