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Alcoholic drinks sold without payment of duty (tax) are illegal. The sale of illicit alcohol is an estimated 8% of alcohol tax revenue and costs the UK around £1.2 billion per year in lost tax revenue. A sobering thought when you consider that £1 billion is enough money to cover the current annual budget of, for example, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, an NHS Trust with 15,000 staff, 90 wards, and 1,700 beds across three main sites, delivering district general services to 2.5m residents, delivering specialist care to 4.5m people from across the East Midlands and playing a vital role in the education and training of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals.
Fake or illegally produced alcohol is not a new phenomenon; as far back as the 1820s, Sir Edwin Landseer’s painting the Illicit Highland Whisky Still depicted a Scottish Highlander standing near his illicit distilling equipment. It is also not just a UK issue; fake and illicit alcohol is produced in many countries worldwide, and it can find its way into the UK via smuggling and counterfeit imports. Crime agency Interpol have stated that, “The trade in fake and pirated goods is a transnational crime, run by extensive and complex criminal enterprises. There is a clear link between illicit trade and other types of crime, such as human trafficking, drug trafficking, corruption, bribery and money laundering. Illicit trade damages the global economy and harms public health worldwide. All regions of the world and all industry sectors are affected.”
Recent seizures of counterfeit alcohol indicate that the problem is widespread. For example, a European investigation coordinated by OLAF in 2020, seized 1.2 million litres of alcoholic beverages, with the largest quantity being wine. Norwegian authorities seized more than 5,000 litres of vodka smuggled in a trailer.
Law enforcement authorities participating in the initiative included those from:
- The Netherlands.
- The UK.
Also, in 2011, five men died in an explosion at an illegal alcohol still where three lorries full of fake Smirnoff were found.
Alcohol sold outside governmental regulation as well as being untaxed, avoids quality and health regulations, which can lead to it being toxic or deadly.
What is fake alcohol?
Fake or illegally produced alcohol is alcohol that is produced in unlicensed distilleries or people’s homes and intended for sale. It is illegal to distil and sell alcohol to the public in the UK without a licence from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). Fake alcohol may be packaged to look like well-known, legally produced brands and this is known as counterfeiting. Counterfeit alcohol is particularly dangerous, as it is produced without any control over what ingredients go into it.
Genuine and legally made alcohol products contain the chemical ethanol, which can be drunk safely in moderation. However, counterfeiters will look to cut costs by substituting ethanol with cheaper and possibly toxic substances.
The sale of illegal alcohol is not only dangerous to those who consume it, but it also affects the wider community, as it can be linked to organised crime, child exploitation, money laundering and even terrorism.
The trade in fake and illicit alcohol spans a number of practices including:
- Adulteration of products.
- Tax evasion.
Fake alcohol is sold illegally across the UK, and often counterfeit alcohol is deliberately packaged to deceive the consumer into believing they are purchasing the real product. This can be extremely dangerous, as drinkers are not expecting the alcohol to be any riskier than their usual drink. One of the most commonly counterfeited alcoholic drinks is vodka, which is a popular drink across all age and socio-economic groups.
Why is fake alcohol produced?
Like all other consumer products, fake alcohol would not be produced if there was not a sound economic reason to do so. In other words, it makes money and it is sold cheaply, making it appealing to both unscrupulous retailers and unsuspecting consumers. The money made is generally for criminal gangs who are setting up factories and making fake alcohol on an industrial scale, which then gets shipped out to off-licences, pubs and clubs. The counterfeit alcohol that is sold in some off-licences, pubs or clubs enters the retail market from the backs of vans across the country.
Criminal gangs deliberately spread out their distribution and sales networks to disguise their activities by duping the public into believing it is a small, local deception and not the bigger international fraud across Europe and beyond that it really is.
A study into the distribution and consumption of counterfeit alcohol by Jon Spencer, Nicholas Lord and Cecilia Flores Elizondo of the Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Manchester, to provide a greater understanding of the social factors that influence counterfeit alcohol distribution and consumption, found that:
- Cheaper brands and ‘own brand’ vodka appear to be the most vulnerable to counterfeiting. One Trading Standards officer expected luxury brands to be more vulnerable, however, there was no indication of this from the data.
- Trading Standards officers appear to rely on intelligence in cases of counterfeit alcohol or on a consumer complaint. There is no case where counterfeit alcohol was discovered through normal routine regulatory visits to retailers.
- The distribution of counterfeit alcohol has a very opaque supply chain and it is challenging for Trading Standards officers to trace back more than one step. This hinders prosecution and makes the understanding of distribution networks more challenging.
- The opaqueness of distribution networks makes investigating the production networks even more challenging owing to lack of visibility of supply chain networks.
- The successful distribution of counterfeit alcohol relies, in part, on its integration into the market as ‘legitimate’ product. The ‘branding’ of the counterfeit product as a ‘known’ brand appears to induce consumer confidence in the product.
- There are certain activities that provide a cover for illicit distribution. The use of legitimate delivery networks, for example, delivery vans and other legitimate traders, such as taxis, are an aid to concealing distribution. There are many other forms of legitimate delivery service that could be utilised for the distribution of counterfeit alcohol. These distribution methods make it complex to trace the supply chain back from the point of delivery.
- Recent cutbacks to local authority funding have impacted on the capacity of Trading Standards officers to investigate activities other than those which receive a high priority. This can make the distribution of counterfeit alcohol less risky for those engaged in this activity.
How to spot and avoid fake alcohol
According to the Trading Standards Institute, people need to remember the 4 Ps when spotting and avoiding fake alcohol; that is, Place, Price, Packaging and Product.
Place – Make sure you buy from a reputable supermarket, off-licence or shop.
Price – If a deal looks too good to be true, it most probably is.
Packaging – Look out for:
- Poor quality labelling, including things like spelling mistakes.
- UK duty stamp — spirits in bottles 35cl or larger and 30% ABV or higher have to have a duty stamp, which indicates that tax has either been paid or is due to be paid on the contents of the bottle. They are usually incorporated into the label or stuck on the glass. If it is not there, it is illegal.
- Properly sealed caps. If the seal is broken, don’t drink it. Even if it is not illegal, it could have been tampered with.
- Fake bar codes. If you have an app on your mobile that scans bar codes, scan it and see if it is listed as the correct product.
Product – Look out for fake versions of well-known brands and be wary of unusual brand names you haven’t seen before. Be extra wary when buying vodka, as this is the most counterfeited spirit; it should not have any white particles or sediment in the bottle. If you see this, the vodka could have been diluted with tap water. If any alcohol tastes or smells bad, don’t drink it. Particularly look out for the smell of nail varnish, a strong acetone smell.
If you notice any of the warning signs listed above, do not buy the product, and definitely do not drink it.
What chemicals does fake alcohol contain?
Fake or counterfeit alcohol is normally laced with substitutes for ethanol including:
- Chemicals used in cleaning fluids.
- Nail polish remover.
- Car screen wash.
- Paint stripper.
- Methanol and isopropanol which are used in antifreeze and some fuels.
- Ethyl acetate, which is normally found in glues.
- Acetaldehyde, another compound used in large-scale industrial processes and which occurs naturally in alcoholic beverages, and is potentially cancerous if found in too high a volume.
These alternative chemicals aren’t just unhealthy, they could be seriously dangerous for your health. There is also the additional worry that there is no way to tell how strong fake illicit alcohol is, although those in the business of counterfeiting will try to match the alcohol content of the product being faked, so as not to arouse suspicion.
What are the health risks from fake alcohol?
Fake alcohol can cause blindness, organ failure such as kidney or liver problems or failure, coma, and can even lead to death.
Some of the symptoms of poisoning from fake alcohol can include, but are not limited to:
- Abdominal pain.
- Blue-tinged or pale skin.
- Drowsiness and dizziness.
- Irregular or slow breathing.
- Loss of coordination.
- Low body temperature (hypothermia).
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Stupor (being conscious but unresponsive).
- Unconsciousness (passing out).
As well as the health impacts to consumers of fake alcohol there are also many dangers in its production and distribution.
Recent cases of fake alcohol seizure
Trading Standards officers from Hammersmith and Fulham Council investigated ‘Smokemart’ store in King Street and sent underage buyers in to test purchase. But just one month after selling alcohol to the two underage volunteers aged 15 and 17 years, the Trading Standards officers discovered more than 111 litres of untaxed spirits and 23 litres of counterfeit vodka in the King Street shop. The 68 bottles of counterfeit vodka can be significantly dangerous, or even fatal, to consume and produce. The duty and VAT payable on the seized goods was approximately £2,350. The defendants signed cautions, with the owner paying costs of £4,237.50 and the shop assistant paying costs of £1,470.
Trading Standards officers from the Royal Borough of Greenwich seized 900 bottles of illegal Smirnoff vodka alongside counterfeit duty stamps from a storage facility. The alcohol was seized and handed over to HMRC to investigate.
Trading Standards officers at Bolton Council and Greater Manchester Police seized 105 bottles of counterfeit vodka. The store owner surrendered the premise’s licence and the business has since closed down. Bolton Council also alerted HMRC that the owner did not have a valid Alcohol Wholesale Registration Scheme licence (AWRS). HMRC investigated and the owner was fined £12,000 for being in contravention of the AWRS.
Over 30% of reporting authorities investigated links to organised crime. This figure was in line with previous years and money laundering, benefit fraud, drug dealing, people trafficking and child sexual exploitation remained significant, consistent ancillary aspects of criminality investigated by Trading Standards authorities. (Source HM Intellectual Property Office).
What to do if fake alcohol is spotted
As vodka is the main spirit that is faked in the UK, if you feel particularly unwell after drinking vodka, it could be an indication of a fake bottle. If a number of people have drunk vodka from the same bottle or at the same venue and have similar symptoms, it is likely that fake vodka is the cause; however, the same applies to any alcohol that you are suspicions about. If you think you have drunk any fake alcohol, the best thing to do is to seek medical advice immediately, call NHS 111 or visit an NHS walk-in centre or your local hospital’s A & E department.
If you believe you or a friend have consumed any kind of counterfeit alcohol, or you suspect it is being sold in a particular shop, bar, or venue, report it 100% anonymously by calling Crimestoppers on 0800 234 6388 or via the online report form.
Anyone with information about the illegal sale of alcohol should contact the Customs Hotline on 0800 59 5000.
You can also report it to your local environmental health officer, by calling the Citizens Advice Consumer Helpline on 03454 04 05 06.
The current cost of living crisis may make cheap alcohol especially tempting, but the criminals selling this lethal chemical cocktail don’t care about your health. All they want is to make a profit. They may even deliberately target areas where particularly young people or students live or socialise, knowing they may care less about the source of their drink. But remember, if a deal looks too good to be true, it most probably is, and the cost to health can be enormous.