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Deadly black-market booze is killing Indonesians who are being left vomiting, staggering and partially blind
ABC Radio Australia - April 15, 2018
The officials each slip on a pair of blue latex gloves, grab a bottle of beer... and go to work. That's the delicate part of the operation over.
A police officer, also wearing latex gloves, climbs into a yellow steamroller and drives it across the bottles of booze.
The men accused of making and selling this bootleg alcohol are here too, wearing orange t-shirts and black balaclavas, forced to watch the destruction of their work.
This strange ritual of destroying illegal alcohol occurs fairly regularly in Indonesia, but there's been a new urgency this week after more than 100 Indonesians died in two cities after drinking a toxic batch of home-made spirits.
Legal spirits are expensive in Indonesia: the cheapest bottles of imported hard liquor cost around $50, or approximately half a week's wages for an ordinary Indonesian worker.
Wine is equally unaffordable: $50 a bottle and upwards for brands that sell for $12 in Australia.
Beer's not so expensive, with single cans of local brands like Bintang or Probst costing the equivalent of $2 or $3, but they are getting harder to buy.
Convenience stores outside tourist areas haven't been allowed to sell beer since 2015, thanks to legislation supported by conservative religious groups.
All this fuels a thriving black market. At the top end there's alcohol dealers that operate on the fringes of the law selling to expats and wealthy locals – they sell duty-free booze for about 50 per cent more than you'd expect to pay in an Australian bottle shop.
Then there's cheap bottled spirits – that's what's being destroyed today – with names like Mansion House Whisky and Intisari Ginseng wine.
But on the street, the biggest demand is for black-market alcohol blends called oplosan. They're cheap and available from roadside stands, often sold in plastic bags with a drinking straw already inserted.
Oplosan is a potent cocktail that can contain almost anything: energy drinks, beer, industrial alcohol containing methanol, or spirits brewed by amateurs from fermented casava.
Police think the latter is what's killed drinkers in Bandung and Jakarta this week: an inexpertly brewed batch that contained fatal quantities of methanol.
Some of the drinkers keeled over on their motorcycles. Some made it to hospital: vomiting, staggering, partially blind and totally overwhelming medical staff.
At one small regional hospital in Bandung 70 oplosan drinkers were admitted. Thirty-one of them died.
Recent research by the Centre for Indonesian Policy Studies says one third of university students in Bandung had drunk oplosan – and the trend is rising.
The Centre's Sugianto Tandra says the high price of legal alcohol in Indonesia fuels the demand for dangerous cheap blend.
"The taxation leads to more expensive legal alcohol, and consumers who cannot afford it look for another alternative," Mr Tandra says.
"What we've seen recently is consumption of unrecorded (illegal) alcohol: a concoction of non-food alcohol beverages. That's alcohol that basically must not be consumed. "This clearly calls for lower alcohol taxes in Indonesia."