Dangerous fake alcohol alert to New Year's Eve revellers

New Year’s Eve revellers are being warned to avoid cheap fake alcohol containing potentially lethal ingredients ahead of the biggest social night of the year.


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The LGA warning follows recent council seizures of counterfeit vodka, with some containing industrial strength levels of alcohol which can lead to vomiting, permanent blindness, kidney or liver problems, and in extreme cases, death.

Councils are also warning sellers of illegal alcohol they face prosecution and being stripped of any relevant licences after a series of recent raids on rogue premises.

With partygoers stocking up on alcohol at home and attending big celebrations in towns and city centres, councils are issuing safety advice to help people avoid harm from illegal alcohol.

The LGA, which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, is urging shoppers to look out for tell-tale signs that bottles are fake. These include unfamiliar brand names, crooked labels, spelling mistakes, very low prices which are “too good to be true”, different fill levels in bottles of the same brand and sediment in the liquid which should not be present.

People being served vodka in pubs and clubs should also check the smell – fake vodka will often smell of nail varnish.

Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:

"We know that New Year’s Eve is the biggest social night of the year but people shouldn’t let their guard down. Anyone buying alcohol needs to look out for suspiciously cheap, fake alcohol because it could leave them seriously ill and, in extreme cases, cost them their life.

“Counterfeit alcohol is not only a serious danger to health, it harms legitimate traders and threatens livelihoods, with the black market trade funding organised criminal gangs.

“Council trading standards teams have been targeting businesses selling fake alcohol and rogue sellers should think twice about stocking these dangerous drinks as we will always seek to prosecute irresponsible traders.”

Not only does fake alcohol pose a severe health risk, alcohol fraud is reported to cost the UK around £1 billion a year. Because they don’t pay tax, fraudsters can undercut legitimate companies.

Retailers selling illegal alcohol could lose their licence, be fined up to £5,000, be jailed for up to 10 years, get a criminal record, ruin their reputation, seriously harm their customers’ health and be liable for the consequences.

Anyone who thinks they have consumed fake alcohol should seek medical advice. The incident should also be reported to the local environmental health officer, by calling Citizens Advice on 03454 04 05 06, or the Customs Hotline on 0800 59 5000. 

Case studies

  • More than 14,000 litres of spirits, wine and beer worth £24,000 was seized from retailers in the Birmingham area. The seizure included an estimated 76 litres of spirits, 1,860 litres of wine and 23,000 cans of beer in an HMRC operation involving Trading Standards aimed at thwarting the sale and supply of illegal alcohol.
     
  • Lincolnshire County Council’s Trading Standards, in partnership with police, seized around 400 bottles of counterfeit wine and 3,000 cans of fake alcohol during raids across the county. The items were taken to a specialist recycling centre, converted into electricity and fed into the national grid.
     
  • Northumberland County Council is warning drinkers to be vigilant after finding “industrial alcohol” – unfit for human consumption - in cheap vodka on sale in local pubs. The fake vodka was being passed off as Smirnoff Vodka and Glens Vodka.
     
  • Staffordshire County Council seized 16 bottles of illegal vodka this month as part of a crackdown on counterfeit alcohol which has included prosecutions and licence reviews. The largest fine handed out to a rogue retailer was £10,000.

Notes

Toxic ingredients in counterfeit alcohol often include industrial strengths of isopropanol - more commonly found in antifreeze, lotions and cosmetics - which can lead to dizziness, vomiting, anaesthesia and even blindness, and can leave someone in a coma. Other substances found in fake bottles of spirits include ethyl acetate, which is normally found in glues, nail polish removers and cigarettes, and can lead to organ damage. Acetaldehyde, another compound used in large-scale industrial processes and which occurs naturally in alcoholic beverages, is potentially cancerous if found in too high a volume.