While alcohol has been illegal in Iran since the Islamic Republic’s creation in 1979, liquor is readily available on the black market, whether it’s smuggled from abroad or produced by local bootleggers. But a recent wave of poisonings that left more than 60 people dead has a lot of Iranians wondering about the wisdom of buying it.
At least 63 people have died and more than 727 people been hospitalised in a wave of poisonings, a spokesman for Iran’s emergency services said on October 8. The cases have been reported since early September across the country, with Iranian media saying the victims had drunk counterfeit liquor with fake labels. Media reports say tests in one city – Karaj, 30km east of Tehran – identified lethal levels of methanol in the victims.
Drinking alcohol is punishable by up to 80 lashes in the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, drinking alcohol is common, especially among younger people, and has deep roots in Iranian culture. Alcohol imports are prohibited, and Iranian police routinely destroy large seizures of smuggled alcohol they have intercepted. Black market manufacturers have stepped in to produce counterfeit versions of well-known brands. And while some Iranians make moonshine at home, organised bootleggers produce homegrown liquor on a larger scale.
There are regular incidents of contamination, with at least 343 deaths reported in 2016-2017. In June 2014 on one day, 355 people were poisoned by contaminated alcohol in Rafsanjan, a city in southeastern Iran.
“They often add medications like valium and amphetamines”
When we talk about poisoning by bootleg or counterfeit alcohol in Iran, we’re talking about strong liquor that is 30 to 70 percent alcohol. There are two main types of bootleg in Iran – and both entail serious, specific health risks for consumers.
The first type is called “arak”, a traditional drink made by distilling fermented raisins. You could call it Iran’s version of vodka. To make it, they put raisins and water into a boiler and run the vapour through a chilled chamber where it condenses into strong alcohol. In Tehran bootleg arak costs about 40,000 tomans per litre (about €3.30). But problems can occur when something goes wrong in the process, like when grape stems find their way into the boiler. This can generate poisonous methanol, which can lead to severe damage like blinding and death. Methanol is colourless like ethanol, but is much more toxic. It is impossible to detect while drinking, so many people get injured or even die.
The second type of bootleg is more lucrative – and more dangerous. Counterfeit versions of well-known brands of liquor. A bottle of whisky costs about 600,000 tomans in Tehran right now – whether it’s genuine or fake. [600,000 tomans is about €50, compared with a worker’s monthly wage of €80.] Counterfeiters buy ethanol – the main ingredient in alcoholic drinks – from chemical suppliers. They add water to bring the alcohol level down to a drinkable level, then food colouring and perhaps a little bit of genuine whisky for flavour.
They often add powerful medications to give the liquor a kick – either sedative pills like valium, or stimulants like amphetamines. That means they can use less alcohol and make the product cheaper.
“Making fake labels is not an obstacle”
Dealers buy used bottles from the black market, or they simply find bottles that look like those used by real brands. Making any kind of fake label is not an obstacle in Iran. On the road between Tehran and Karaj [a city 36km west of Tehran] there are many printing houses. Some of them make a huge amount of money by printing fake labels for many different products: fake brand-name dresses, spare parts for cars… and brand-name liquors.
Dealers download the logo from the internet, and order the labels and cap covers. If they are more sophisticated, they buy a bottle cap sealer machine. If not they do it with very simple methods, as you can see in the video that’s going around on social media in Iran.
This video circulating on social media in Iran shows beer bottles with counterfeit labels and caps. The labels are an accurate copy of the Dutch brand Amstel, but with mistakes such as the garbled “%30avc”. At 1:10 the author of the video peels off the top of the cap to reveal “Istak”, an Iranian brand of non-alcoholic beer. A voice on the video says the bottles contain bootleg beer and warns consumers that the contents can be dangerous.
“People don’t know what they are drinking”
Mixing pills into bootleg alcohol can be extremely dangerous. The people making it often don’t know how strong a dose they’re putting in. It can be deadly.
The problem is that people don’t know what they’re drinking. If it’s contaminated with something harmful and they start to feel sick, they think it’s just the effect of the alcohol and they’re getting drunk. There’s not enough public information about the signs of potential bootleg poisoning.
People are afraid to go to hospital, so they wait for the illness to pass. They miss the window of opportunity for treating the poisoning. They think that because drinking alcohol is a crime in Iran if they go to hospital they’ll be reported. But that’s not true. Doctors never would report a patient to police for this.
While there are no clear statistics about alcohol consumption in Iran, Iran’s police announced in 2013 that there were more than 200,000 alcohol addicts in the country, with 60 to 80 million litres of alcohol smuggled into Iran every year. The Iranian government started setting up alcoholism treatment centres in 2014, and has since created 149 more in many different provinces.
This article was written by Ershad Alijani.