Ecuador reels from worst alcohol-related tragedy ever

After 50 died in Ecuador this summer from consuming poisonous alcohol, critics say that the government response to buy back tainted products is insufficient and more education is needed.

After 50 dead, 600 hospitalizations, and 14 left blind from consuming poisonous moonshine, Ecuador’s contentious relationship with alcohol has once again flared.

The tiny Andean nation is the third largest consumer of alcohol per capita in Latin America, behind only Argentina and Guyana. While guzzling less than their European counterparts, Ecuadorians still consume 9.4 liters on average per year according to World Health Organization statistics. In response, the government has raised taxes, much to the chagrin of industry, and banned sales on Sundays, a move unpopular with the public at large.

Now some are blaming the government for the country’s worst alcohol-related tragedy ever. And critics say its response, focusing on a large-scale buyback program, has failed to keep the population safe. It is still unclear how quickly, if ever, the government will manage to obtain toxic alcohol still flowing around Ecuador.

The tragedy began in mid-July, after deadly intoxications in the southwestern province of Los Rios were reported.

The government initially banned all sales of alcohol nationwide for three days. Officials launched an investigation, which eventually showed that the lethal concoctions originated from 14 brands from the same factory in the coastal region of Guayas, where methanol, a type of alcohol that is highly toxic, was used as a base instead of ethanol.

Health officials shut the factory down, and the owners were arrested. But unable to obtain all of the toxic liquor, the government initiated a week-long buyback program, urging residents to sell back alcohol for $0.80 per liter of alcohol returned.

By most accounts, the program, which ended Monday, failed. The local news has reported, for example, that people sold the government boxed water, knowing that nobody would dare test the products. In a week, the government only bought back 128,000 liters, leaving another 372,000 still in circulation.

For government critics, this is just another in a long line of failed policies on alcohol.

Take taxes. Since 2000, taxes have gone up from $0.07 to $0.90 per bottle on legal domestic alcohol. The sales of legal products have gone down by half. But that doesn't mean success, says Jorge Talbot, head of Ecuador’s Association of Alcohol Manufacturers. He says higher taxes on legal alcohol only served to increase sales of illegal alcohol, which is cheaper.

“In Ecuador you can get people to consume less alcohol by educating them, not by raising taxes,” he says.

The Sunday ban is just as unpopular among some sectors. The idea, put into place last year, was that banning alcohol on Sundays might reduce alcohol-induced criminality, which peaks on weekends, particularly at the end of the weekend. The government says the ban has reduced crime. But Mr. Talbot argues that it too has simply pushed people to buy alcohol illegally. Indeed, locals know that at corner shops they can still buy alcohol and that some bars will serve beers in coffee mugs.

In the wake of this tragedy, Ecuador should be putting its emphasis on what is the real culprit here, industry leaders say: a lack of product regulation. In this case, the brands selling the methanol did so illegally, but their boxes were disguised as legal. It is part of a bigger problem regarding a lack of control over health certificates related to food, drinks, and medicine in Ecuador. Until earlier this year, all that was needed to receive a health permit and commercialize a product was to have the health authorities check and approve one sample.

The health ministry says they have stepped up controls when it comes to doling out health certificates necessary to sell products. But as this latest incident shows, they have a long way to go to ensure protection.

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