Blindsighted by the lure of Cheap Alcohol

Science and Technology
Lauren Platts, 21, fell victim to a bottle of counterfeit vodka from an off-licence in Sheffield/John Steven Fernandez

Five men were instantaneously burnt to death in July of last year after their alcohol production equipment exploded in a garage in Lincolnshire. Three lorries holding falsely labelled Smirnoff bottles were found nearby.

At their factory, the Lithuanian men had been adding industrial methylated spirit to ethanol and water to create the desired concentration of 37.5 – 40% alcohol. Industrial methylated spirit, also known as denatured alcohol, is essentially ethanol with the addition of other chemicals such as methanol or propan-2-ol, included to make it unfit for human consumption. Denatured alcohol is also colourless and largely indistinguishable in taste to ethanol, which can be safely drunk and is used in beverages, since other alcohols are poisonous.

Methanol is broken down in the body into formaldehyde (used to preserve dead bodies) and formic acid (the sting in ants and nettles), both of which are harmful to humans. The enzyme used for this process is in selective competition with ethanol, so actually by consuming ethanol after methanol ingestion, fewer unwanted products are made in the body. Interestingly, red wines and ciders have higher natural methanol content than spirits and other alcohols due to the breakdown of peptin in fruit skin and pips. This is the reason why some wines and ciders can give you worse hangovers.

As denatured alcohol does not carry excise duty, the scam can be hugely profitable. A criminal arrested in Manchester supposedly made over 10 million pounds from his counterfeit alcohol business. There is however concern about the working conditions in these factories and it is suspected that profit is used to fund human trafficking, drugs, prostitution and slavery in the UK.

In November 2011, Lauren Platts, 21, fell victim to a counterfeit bottle of vodka from an off-licence in Sheffield. Attracted by the £5.99 price tag, the shop-keeper warned her ‘This stuff will make you blind’ as he handed the bottle. Little did she know he wasn’t joking.

She drank one third of the bottle mixed with lemonade before hitting the town for a night out but Miss Platt said that the next day ‘I woke up with the worst migraine I have ever had. I was throwing up, I couldn’t keep anything down. I wasn’t able to get out of bed for two days.’

The symptoms didn’t disappear and she said that ‘My vision goes blurred, I have black blotches and I tend to lose my peripheral vision quite a lot. I think I might have it for good but I’m just grateful to be alive or not completely blind.’

In January of this year counterfeit vodka disguised as bottles of ‘Arctic Ice’ was found on sale in a shop in Oxfordshire.

Understandably, best efforts are being made by drinks companies to keep new alcohol authentication technologies under wraps, however we are told that taggants are being incorporated to distinguish genuine drink brands from their fake counterparts.

Taggants act as a kind of ‘nano-barcode’. They are chemical markers manufactured from rare-earth phosphor compounds i.e. substances that exhibits the phenomenon of luminescence. Triggered by infra-red radiation or visible under a microscope, taggants emit a unique signature determined by the manufacturer. There is no generic model, making the technology particularly effective as a security device.

Included in inks, plastics or embedded in packaging materials, taggants are extremely difficult to source or replicate and manufacturers have to maintain a high level of security and tight control over their chemical combinations. A laser technology has also been developed that leaves a code etched onto the inside of glass containers without damaging the outside of the bottle. A computer is able to capture and decode the information, checking for anti-counterfeit data.

Extra precautions can be taken by the general public to ensure that you are not buying fake alcohol. Poorly aligned labels and those with misspellings should immediately warn you that the bottle may contain counterfeit alcohol. For example, fake Jacob’s Creek bottles of wine were found displaying ‘Shardonnay from Australia’ on the label and triple was spelt as ‘Trippple’ on a bottle of Arctic Vodka. Avoid buying a brand of vodka named ‘Drop Vodka’ as this is not registered by any company in the UK and could be dangerous. Also, watch out for bottles with varying fill heights or with cloudy liquid inside and steer clear of alcohol from unusual places of origin such as vodka from Italy. Barcodes that read 1234567890 and very cheap price tags are all tell-tale signs that what you are buying is counterfeit.


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