Revealed: Potentially 'deadly' fake alcohol being sold across Tanzania

17Nov 2016
Felister Peter
The Guardian
Revealed: Potentially 'deadly' fake alcohol being sold across Tanzania
  • The government warns that the lives of thousands of Tanzanians, including school children, are at risk from potentially lethal bootleg booze as the taxman loses revenue worth over 600bn/- each year

THOUSANDS of bottles and sachets of potentially deadly fake alcohol drinks are feared to be on sale across Tanzania following revelations that criminal gangs are producing them illegally and selling them off in the disguise of popular legal brands like Konyagi and Smirnoff.

Dr Hamisi Kigwangalla

Against this backdrop, the government is now expected to announce a formal ban on the production, importation and sale of all alcohol in sachets countrywide amid growing concerns among law-abiding dealers of these products that the bootleggers are making a fortune at their expense while putting public health at great risk.

It has long been established that consumption of alcohol sold in sachets is becoming a major problem among local youth, including students, in terms of both health and ability to socialize, since the quality of most of these drinks remains uncertified.

Following the latest discovery of an illegal alcohol distillery in a rented residential house in Dar es Salaam's Sinza suburb on Tuesday, the Deputy Minister for Health, Community Development, Gender, the Elderly and Children, Dr Hamisi Kigwangalla, has now confirmed that a nationwide crackdown is now underway to expose more such illegal plants - along with licensed alcohol manufacturers suspected to be engaged in massive tax evasion.

"Two inspection teams under my supervision have already seized fake alcohol on sale at one retail shop, two wholesale alcohol sellers and one illegal alcohol distillery," Dr Kigwangalla told The Guardian in the city yesterday.

He added: "We are also investigating three large-scale alcohol manufacturing plants believed to be deliberately supplying alcohol products that lack date of manufacture, expiry date, batch numbers and Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA) stickers - which means that they are evading tax."

The deputy minister explained that the gang busted in Dar es Salaam on Tuesday was found distilling an illicit brew popularly known as moonshine or 'gongo', and then using that alcohol to fill empty bottles and sachets with the names of known brands such as Konyagi and Smirnoff vodka.

The raid on the fake Sinza distillery impounded dozens of boxes of bootleg alcohol in bottles and sachets. According to Kigwangalla, more than five people have been arrested over that particular racket so far.

“We have many more teams conducting similar inspections and raids across the country to nab fake alcohol producers," he added.

The raids are being carried out by officials from the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, the Elderly and Children, the Tanzania Food and Drugs Authority (TFDA), the Tanzania Bureau of Standards (TBS), the Police and other state oversight and law-enforcement agencies.

The small illegal distillery busted in Sinza earlier this week is believed to have supplied scores of wholesale liquor stores, retail shops, bars and hotels in Dar es Salaam with fake alcohol products.

Officials said criminal gangs across the country are looking to exploit the traditional increase in demand for alcohol in Tanzania over the year-end festive period.

A GROWING PROBLEM

"It is estimated that more than 600 billion/- is lost each year in taxes from fake alcohol sachets alone. These alcohol sachets that litter the streets everywhere across the country have also become a major environment hazard," said Kigwangalla.

"We also have information that several legally-registered large-scale alcohol manufacturers pay taxes for only 10 per cent of the alcohol they produce, with the remaining 90 per cent of the output sold into the market through tax evasion," he noted.

He said the government was considering the possibility of imposing a ban on alcohol sachets to "rescue the future and current generation of youths", intervention several legally registered alcohol manufacturers and dealers have long demanded from the government.

Recently, however, there were suggestions from some quarters that the manufacture and use of sachets was behind the employment of big numbers of Tanzanians and imposing the ban might make a bad situation worse.

Several African countries have already banned the importation, production, distribution and sale of alcohol in sachets ahead of Tanzania.

Ivory Coast last week announced a ban on alcohol in sachets, while Cameroon, Malawi and Senegal have also banned the sale and production of alcohol in sachets in recent years.

The small plastic bags, usually containing rum, vodka or other spirits, are popular with many youths.

"The impact of the illegal alcohol trade is very big to our country ... alcohol sachets, especially fake ones, are sold cheaply and are easily available everywhere in the country and at any time," said Kigwangalla.

"We have information that instead of buying candy, children in Tanzania are now buying alcohol sachets. School children drink alcohol in sachets, so do 'bodaboda' (motorcycle taxi) and Bajaj drivers as well as truck drivers, this in part explaining the rise in the frequency of accidents on our roads," he added.

Kigwangalla, a medical doctor, said the consumption of fake alcohol had severe medical and economic consequences to both the people and the government.

"The government faces a huge burden in terms of rising public healthcare costs, because the consumption of fake alcohol mixed with methylated spirits usually causes sudden death, blindness and an increase in cancer cases," he said.

Criminal gangs see the production of fake alcohol as a way of making easy money since it can be bought cheaply and, therefore, fast.

However, government officials said counterfeit alcohol has become a big national problem because of the serious risks it poses to public health.

Fake or illegally produced alcohol is the kind produced in unlicensed distilleries or people's homes and intended for sale to gullible consumers – sometimes secretly but also on the open market. It is illegal to distill and sell alcohol to the public in Tanzania without a valid licence.

Much of the fake or illegally produced alcohol contains potentially dangerous chemicals. Properly produced and certified alcoholic drinks are made with ethanol, which is alcohol that is safe to drink in moderation.

However, fake ones can be made using other cheaper and lethal types of alcohol such as methanol which can have serious adverse effects on people's health.

Experts say commonly used substitutes for ethanol in illegal alcohol include chemicals used in cleaning fluids, nail polish removers and automobile screen wash, as well as methanol and isopropanol which are used in antifreeze and some fuels.

These other types of alcohol can produce similar effects to ethanol in terms of making drinkers feel tipsy, but they are also potentially very dangerous.

Drinking alcohol containing these chemicals can cause nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, drowsiness and dizziness. It can also lead to kidney or liver problems and even coma. Methanol, a substance which can be used in making fake vodka, may cause permanent blindness.

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