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'Secret Vodka' Kills 53 in Estonia

14 September 2001 PARNU, 14 September (Postimees)--53 people have died in Estonia after drinking poisonous illegal vodka, 81 are still in hospital and 45 have been let home after medical treatment.

The catastrophe began on 9 September when eight people died in Parnu County and twelve were taken to hospitals with coma. All of them drank the so-called "secret vodka", which is a lot cheaper than the legal one. This time, however, it contained lethal methanol instead of ordinary ethanol.

"Secret vodka" is usually sold in used half-liter plastic soda bottles. One victim, however, said the place he bought the vodka from, sells it open--the customer brings a bottle and has it filled on the spot.

Doctors say the symptoms of methanol poisoning include double vision, lack of air, loss of sight, and weakness. Usually the victims go into coma and die. Methanol is a strong poison--five to ten milliliters causes serious poisoning, sometimes blindness, 30 milliliters and above is lethal. "Only Tallinn and Tartu hospitals have dialyses--or blood-cleaning machines, without the help of which these people might die," Raul Adlas from Tallinn Ambulance told Baltic News Service.

The police have arrested a key-figure in the case--a well-known illegal vodka businessman, who might be responsible for spreading the poisonous liquid on the market. His ten re-sellers did not know about the methanol.

"Whether the purveyor knew it or not is hard to tell, and so far the man arrested has not testified," Parnu criminal police chief Andres Sinimeri said.

After the tragedy, police received information about the sellers of illegal vodka and more than a thousand liters of methanol-containing vodka has been confiscated.

Supposedly police officers have limited power in the fight against illegal alcohol, as they cannot search any selling location without a criminal case opened first. "The criminal case cannot be started on an empty spot and controlling is complicated for policemen as retailers usually sell to people they know," police head Harry Tuul said.

Justice Minister Mart Rask rejected that version as a lie. "We must end the attitude that if you cannot handle your job you blame the inadequate laws. The laws exist and they must be fulfilled," Rask said.

The punishments for producing illegal vodka are insignificant, usually just fines. The maximum penalty for the current case is three years of imprisonment.

Legal vodka producers have recommended to reduce the taxes on legal vodka by 20 percent. The Vodka Union says it would help to decrease the market share of illegal alcohol and bring an additional 100-150 million kroons ($5.7-8.5 million) to the State budget. But Finance Minister adviser Daniel Vaarik said reduced taxes would only result in a greater alcohol consumption and would not decrease the share of illegal alcohol. "The purpose of the state is not to get people drunk cheap," Vaarik added.

"The 'let's drink illegal vodka, smoke illegal cigarettes and ignore the doctors' advice, but let the state take responsibility" attitude is too common in our society," Internal Affairs Minister Tarmo Loodus said on 11 September. "First of all, people must acknowledge the responsibility for their life and health," he concluded.

"I am not aware of anything tragic happening in Estonia. I know that half a hundred people are dead in Estonia due to illegal spirit. Those are people, who have preferred to cheat their fellow citizens and buy cheap vodka illegally," President Lennart Meri commented on 13 September.

[Editor's note: Illegal alcohol, mainly vodka, has currently a market share of 40-50 percent in Estonia. Due to unpaid taxes a bottle of the so-called secret vodka may cost almost twice less than the legal one. It usually comes in plastic bottles, but is often filled in bottles that look like the original. Illegal vodka is usually sold in small shops or taxis.]

The above article compiles several articles published in Postimees printed editions and web pages between 10 and 14 September.
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