What is illicit alcohol and why can it be so dangerous?

It’s believed roughly 25% of all alcohol consumed around the world is illicit (1) and drinking it can make you sick or even kill you. Here’s what you need to know.

‘Illicit’ alcohol is produced illegally, outside of the approved and regulated production processes of registered and legitimate manufacturers. It’s largely unbranded and doesn’t comply with standards that ensure the quality and safety of products.

In some countries, small batches of home brews from locally available ingredients are made and sold outside of legal production and trade channels. Other illicit drinks are produced on a larger scale, sometimes using readily available ethanol instead of the natural fermentation process and mixed with other ingredients. They may be sold directly on the black market or may be repackaged and sold as counterfeits of known brands.

The illicit market also includes the smuggling of legally produced, high-quality and branded drinks across borders. This usually happens where there’s a large difference in price or where alcohol is available in one place but not another.

Illicit alcohol can pose a significant risk to your health

Illustration of a triangle warning sign next to alcohol bottles

Illicitly produced alcohol can pose a significant risk to the health of consumers. Media reports from countries around the world frequently point to mass poisonings and deaths.

Since there’s no quality control or oversight over how these drinks are produced, they may contain very high amounts of ethanol, increasing the risk of poisoning. They may also contain harmful and toxic ingredients (2, 3). One of the most common is methanol, a form of alcohol that may be added to some illicit beverages to make them stronger. It causes blindness and other health problems, and is often lethal (4). Also, some drinks are contaminated during production with toxic chemicals and animal products that may be added to speed up fermentation. When these drinks are consumed, they pose a high risk of poisoning and infection.

People may also turn to drinking fluids that contain alcohol, like hand sanitiser, cologne, mouthwash or window cleaning solutions, because they’re cheap and readily available (5-7). While these liquids can be legally bought and used, they’re not intended for drinking and the consequences can be devastating. In Kenya (8), a local drink called changa’a is referred to as ‘kill me quick’ because of its high potency (9).

Illicit alcohol is widespread, particularly in the developing world

There are many places around the world where drinking alcohol can be risky, especially if it’s not in a restaurant or purchased from a licensed shop.

The World Health Organization estimates that roughly a quarter of all alcohol consumed around the world is illicit (1), but research shows that this figure is much higher in some regions. For example, almost half of the alcohol consumed in Southeast Asia and over a third of what is consumed in Africa is illicit (10). It’s illegally produced or sold, or both, particularly where legal products are either unavailable or inaccessible, usually because they’re unaffordable for many people (11).

That’s why the impact of illicit alcohol is felt most severely by the poorest members of society, who may be unable to access legal products. The impact of illicit alcohol is particularly severe for those who may be poorly nourished and with inadequate access to healthcare.

Illicit alcohol includes drinks that are homemade, counterfeit and many that don’t conform to standards of quality and integrity

Illustration of two alcohol labels, one with a label and the other without.

In many countries, illicit alcohol drinks may be traditional local products that are homemade. They include drinks like palm toddy in Sri Lanka and India, pulque in Mexico, chicha in Bolivia, sorghum beer and other brews in Botswana and South Africa, and samogon, a homemade vodka, in Russia and Belarus. These drinks can sometimes be of high quality, but they’re often not and it’s difficult to tell the difference.

Other types include large-scale and illegally manufactured drinks. These are often sold through illicit channels (12). However, they may also be passed off as legitimate brands and may be found in legal retail stores or served in bars and other establishments (13). Counterfeit alcohol production and trade is illegal and can jeopardise the health of unsuspecting consumers.

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