Deadly fake spirits flooding Britain’s off-licences: Laced with bleach, nail polish and anti-freeze.
- Concoctions containing chloroform passed off as high end alcohol
- The black market, worth £1bn, has caused a string of deaths across Britain
- Young people looking for cheap alcohol left with life-changing illnesses
As a married mum of two with a demanding job, nights out were few and far between for Liz Goldsborough. So when friends invited the 26-year-old to join them for a birthday celebration, she jumped at the chance to let her hair down.
‘I hadn’t been out for ages and was really looking forward to it,’ said Liz, a senior carer at a residential home.
‘My mum was babysitting my children at hers so we all got ready at mine.’
While the friends did their make-up and got dressed they shared a few drinks — three shots each— from a bottle of vodka that one of them had picked up at an off-licence on the way.
But by 10pm when they reached the club in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, Liz started to feel very ill. ‘I got this awful buzzing sensation in my ears and began to feel really weird,’ she said.
I made my way to the ladies and I threw up. I wasn’t drunk, I just felt absolutely dreadful. I couldn’t stand up and I was shaking so much a lady asked if I wanted an ambulance.’
Guided back into the club by her friends, Liz blacked out, after which she was helped into a taxi before collapsing in her bed at home.
‘For the next four days I was very ill,’ she recalls. ‘My headache did not subside and I constantly vomited up a green, watery substance. My throat was raw, my stomach and ribs ached and my whole body was drained of energy.’
And Liz wasn’t the only one who had suffered that week. Her five friends had also been ill, something they now believe was down to the vodka they had drunk.
Having bought it from an independent off-licence at a discount price, the group put two and two together after hearing of a warning made by their local trading standards department about a batch of counterfeit vodka being sold in the area.
They did report what happened, but are unaware if any action was taken.
Fortunately for Liz there would be no long-term consequences. After a few days she was able to return to her job and put the experience down to bad luck — but vowed never to buy cheap drink ever again.
Others have been less lucky. In the past few years, there have been a number of deaths and life-changing health problems linked to the £1 billion worth of illegal alcohol now flooding Britain each year.
Fuelled by the recession, seizures of counterfeit alcohol are up five-fold in five years. Manufactured in filthy, back-street factories, this bargain booze has been found to contain lethal chemicals including methanol, chloroform, bleach, computer screenwash, nail polish remover and anti-freeze.
That is not to mention the ‘foreign objects’ such as dead insects, used chewing gum and metal staples found in the bottom of bottles.
So widespread is the problem that counterfeit alcohol now accounts for 73 per cent of all trading standards investigations.
In Staffordshire, trading standards checked 415 off-licences and at 75 of them — almost one in five — found counterfeit alcohol goods to a total retail value of £30,000.
And it is not just vodka and spirits that are being faked.
The effects, which take between 40 minutes and 72 hours to appear, range from breathing difficulties to blindness, seizure, coma and death
Leading wine brands such as Jacob’s Creek, Echo Falls, Blossom Hill, Kumala and Hardy’s have also been targeted.
At the lower end of the scale, criminals are simply inventing the names of vineyards, creating convincing-looking labels and then filling bottles with a mixture of fruit juice and industrial alcohol — the sort of stuff that is used as a solvent and anti-freeze.
‘The information that has been given to me is that the big gangs that were dealing with drugs have moved over to counterfeit and smuggled alcohol because there is more money but less risk,’ one experienced trading standards officer told me.
‘If you are caught in the fake alcohol trade you are not going to get the penalties you would if you were smuggling drugs.
The penalties are less and they are making more money — that is one of the reasons it is becoming such a big problem.’ Properly produced and certified alcoholic drinks are made with ethanol — alcohol that is safe to drink in moderation.
But fake alcoholic drinks can be produced using other cheaper types of alcohol which can have serious adverse health effects.
A staggering 24 bottles of vodka were being produced every minute at a rat-infested building in Hackney
Methanol, derived through industrial processes, is one of these — and is far more toxic than ethanol. Just two tablespoons can be deadly for a child, while between 100ml and 200ml could kill an adult, the equivalent of four large shots of vodka.
The effects, which take between 40 minutes and 72 hours to appear, can range from sickness, severe and chronic headache and breathing difficulties to blindness, seizure, coma, kidney failure and death in extreme cases.
All these symptoms are caused by the body converting methanol into formic acid. If enough of this builds up, it can start to attack the nervous system, especially the optic nerve, which transmits messages between the brain and the eye.
‘Aside from death, blindness is the biggest threat,’ says Dr Sarah Jarvis, medical adviser to alcohol education charity Drinkaware.
‘But it can also accumulate in the nervous system causing Parkinson’s-like symptoms — uncontrollable tremors, rigidity and paucity of movement. Part of your brain ceases to respond as it should.’
Among recent fatalities caused by methanol was 49-year-old Adam Bohm, who was found dead in his flat in Worthing two years ago.
After his death his flat was searched and bottles of fake vodka were discovered.
Meanwhile, Sheffield University student Lauren Platts had a lucky escape two years ago after buying a cheap bottle of what she thought was vodka for £5.99.
After drinking about a third of a bottle mixed with lemonade she spent the next two days unable to get out of bed.
‘I had the worst migraine ever, I was extremely sick, with blurred vision,’ she said of her experience.
‘On the second day I wondered whether I’d ever get better.’ Even now the 23-year-old from Chesterfield in Derbyshire is still suffering problems with her eyesight.
‘My vision goes blurred, I have black blotches and I lose my peripheral vision quite a lot,’ she said.
‘It’s really scary when you can’t see anything when you are driving or even walking down the street trying to cross the road. I think I might have it for good but I’m just grateful to be alive and not completely blind.’
Young people are particularly at risk from counterfeit alcohol, because it is relatively cheap — the duty and VAT paid on a legitimate 70cl bottle of vodka is £8.89 alone.
But while vodka remains the criminals’ favoured tipple to fake — a clear liquid with little flavour or aroma — there is clear evidence that other alcoholic drinks are also being targeted.
In recent years trading standards teams across Britain have seized a number of well-known brands of wine that have been found to be fake. In 2013 the owners of a store in Mansfield were fined £400 after trading standards officers seized 34 bottles of counterfeit wine, labelled as Jacob’s Creek.
‘With duty increases and some poor vintages producing less juice, we’re seeing growth at the lower end with fraud, the more entry-level wine, something like a Gallo,’ he said.
‘It’s a brand that people are aware of but normally it would be £8 for a bottle in the supermarket and suddenly they’re finding it in a corner shop or from a friend in a bar for £3 or £4.’
But the criminals aren’t just targeting well-known names. They are also creating their own brands of counterfeit Italian wine.
One trading standards officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Mail that in the area she covers this type of wine is, or has been, available in ‘all but a handful’ of independent off-licences.
‘These bottles of wine are sold as Italian wine and are very cheap — £3 a bottle or two for £5,’ she said.
‘But when we have tried to trace the producers we hit a brick wall. They don’t seem to exist. Also, they change their brand names very often — I see a new brand of cheap Italian wine every two or three months. If you think about the general rule of marketing you want to establish a name, not change it all the time.’
Testing the bottles is difficult because, unlike with an established brand such as Blossom Hill, there is nothing to compare it against.
But based on the volumes being sold in this country, and its poor quality, the belief is that it is not Italian — nor is it really wine at all.
‘Is it wine or has it been produced from fruit juice mixed with alcohol, without any fermentation? The people I know who I have spoken to who have drunk it have not wanted a second bottle — they have felt awful and had really bad hangovers after it,’ she said.
As ever, the danger is not knowing what the bottle actually contains, how strong it is and the conditions in which it has been produced.
These multiple risks were highlighted a year ago when the owners of a student nightclub in Leeds were fined £5,000 after 656 litres of counterfeit vodka were found on the premises.
Tests found it to contain isopropanol, tert-butanol and chloroform, none of which should be in vodka.
David Lodge, of West Yorkshire trading standards, which carried out the raid, said the presence of these contaminants suggested the industrial alcohol used to make the vodka had been previously used for something else.
‘When we talk to our analysts about these products what they say is that you will often find all kinds of random trace chemicals, choloroform being one, in them,’ he said.
‘The theory is that somebody is able to get hold of alcohol that has already been used in some kind of industrial process, hence it has picked up traces of all these weird chemicals. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be consuming them.’
Raids on illegal distilleries have highlighted the conditions in which counterfeit alcohol is being manufactured in this country.
The biggest operation uncovered so far was in 2010 and based at a rat-infested building in Hackney, East London, where a staggering 24 bottles of illicit vodka were being produced every minute.
Polish workers were brought over and slept on concrete floors as the operation ran day and night.
The plant is thought to have produced 1.3 million litres of fake vodka. The six-strong gang who ran it were eventually jailed for a total of 56 years.
Meanwhile in 2011 in Boston, Lincolnshire, five men died when an illegal vodka-making factory went up in a fireball on an industrial estate. Another man was seriously hurt.
Consumers worried about the alcohol they are buying are advised to remember what the Trading Standards Institute calls ‘the four Ps’ — Place, Price, Packaging and Product. This means buying from reputable outlets and observing the adage that if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.
As for packaging and product: look out for poor quality labelling, properly sealed caps, barcodes and duty stamps while being wary of unusual brand-names and alcohol that looks, smells or tastes bad.
These simple precautions could stop you suffering the hangover from hell — or much worse — that a growing number of cut-price bottles lurking on the shelves of off-licences might deliver.