Turkey Faces Deadly Drinking Challenge

Why you should care

Because moonshine is claiming an unlikely victim.

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That it’s only 2 p.m. is of little concern to Abdullah and his buddies in Istanbul’s Okmeydani district. Inside his corner store, plastic cups filled with beer and spirits are dotted along countertops and atop refrigerators stocked with beer and spirits. There’s a merry, excitable atmosphere, and, for anyone who wants, a cup of brew with their name on it.

Just don’t mention politics. These hardcore drinkers are not fans of the Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under the Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, that Erdogan leads, taxes have led to the price of alcohol soaring by 200 percent. The price of raki, the popular aniseed-flavored spirit recognized as Turkey’s national drink, has rocketed by 665 percent.

As a result, people are increasingly reaching for homemade booze, and with deadly consequences. According to a recently published study, 383 people died from methanol poisoning from homemade alcohol between 2002 — when the AK Party won its first election before introducing a “special consumption tax” in addition to the value-added tax — and 2010. That’s a 29 percent increase compared to the previous eight-year period. And while there’s been no such comprehensive study since 2010, all evidence suggests the crisis has only deepened.

I’ve received thank-you messages from hundreds of people I’ve never met before.

Ali Konuk, whose DIY video on home-brewing a Turkish alcoholic drink has gone viral

In December, anti-smuggling police seized 5,000 liters of home-brewed liquor in Istanbul that would have hit the streets in time for the New Year’s Eve celebrations. That followed the state’s biggest-ever moonshine-busting operation last March, which landed 139,000 liters — more than 3 million shots — of raki, whiskey and raw materials, in Izmir. On the black market, the haul would have been worth more than $2.6 billion. Deadly moonshine poisonings in Istanbul and Izmir in November 2015 killed at least 40 people.

“Taxes equivalent to $4 out of $5 [of the market price] are motivating people to produce cheap alcohol at home and to earn an income from it,” says Erdal Ozer of Karadeniz Technical University’s department of forensic medicine, a co-author of the study published last year.

Ali Konuk is one of a growing number of such drinkers taking matters into their own hands. Fueled by the rising prices and a major overhaul of booze laws in 2013, Konuk has been concocting raki in his kitchen since September, using a method he learned while on holiday in rural Turkey last summer. In four months, his DIY brewing video has garnered a quarter of a million views on YouTube. “I’ve received thank-you messages from hundreds of people I’ve never met before,” he says. “The comments people have made about alcoholic beverages being so expensive made me realize that I’m not alone.”

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Workers empty raki bottles for destruction at Mey Drink’s Beykoz depot in Istanbul, March 30, 2005. Mey Drink recalled millions of bottles as the death toll from a tainted lot rose to at least 24.

Source MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty

Konuk’s efforts may be tiny compared to the major bootlegging operations now mushrooming across the country. But they’re part of a broader regional trend. The Middle East may be the ancient birthplace of al-cohol, but increasingly, conservative governments are using taxes to try to limit the amount people are consuming. Though bootlegged varieties make up 40 percent of all alcohol consumed in Qatar, according to the World Health Organization, new taxes there are expected to double market prices this year. In Tunisia, the rising cost of goods, including several rounds of alcohol tax increases, has played a major role in sparking anti-government protests this month.

Beyond the immediate region, Indonesia, a Muslim-majority state in Southeast Asia, doubled its liquor tax rate in 2015. And even countries that haven’t resorted to strict taxation policies are suffering the devastating effects of moonshine: Last July in Iran, a country where a thriving black market for alcohol is thought to be worth as much as $20 billion, five people died when a truck driver distributed 20 liters of an unnamed beverage in the city of Sirjan. In August, at least 80 people succumbed to a poisoning outbreak in Libya. It followed the death of at least 101 people there in 2013 — one of the deadliest bootleg-related incidents in recent years anywhere in the world. Tellingly, consuming alcohol in both countries is illegal.

Unlike these nations, though, Turkey has a long and relatively open relationship with alcohol. The secular founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was well-known for his fondness of a tipple, and alcohol was once served at state functions and gatherings. These days, with Erdogan and his Islamist-leaning AK Party at the helm, all that’s changed. Since 2010, taxes have been pursued even more aggressively than during the early years of AK Party rule, with hikes issued almost every six months. In 2013, Erdogan publicly voiced his disdain of drink and claimed the country’s national beverage should be ayran, a salty — and nonalcoholic — yogurt drink.

Yet Turks are not big drinkers on the whole. Turkey’s consumption rate of 1.5 liters of pure alcohol per person, per year, is the lowest in Europe, the region in which it is categorized by the WHO. At the opposite end of the scale, Russians knock back a head-aching 14 liters.

Turkey’s government appears to have woken up to the fact that rolling tax hikes are fueling inflation, and the spike in bootlegging operations has prompted a new labeling law warning against the consumption of methanol. But Erdogan’s tight grip on politics and policy means that few think the black market is likely to slow anytime soon (taxes on alcohol added almost $1 billion to government coffers last year).

“These price increases are going to continue,” says Ozer, the forensic medicine expert, “so the deaths due to poisonings will increase too.”

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