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Alcohol related deaths in Bali

In the past two weeks, 23 people have died on the resort island of Bali from alcohol related deaths, including four people in the last few days. Among the victims have been several foreigners, including at least one American.

The victims were all drinking local palm or rice wine concoctions in which the brew’s maker had used methanol. Methanol is deadly in even small doses and local police are working to determine whether the poison was used purposefully or by accident.

The drink is known locally as Arak and even in its non-deadly form is dangerous. Popularly mixed with energy drinks like Red Bull, its young consumers are often spurred to make worse than usual decisions.

At least 50 foreigners have gotten seriously sick from the drink in recent months.

But what might be at the heart of the problem is the myriad of government-imposed limits on the production, importation and distribution of alcohol, forcing a prohibition-like atmosphere. Locals are now trying to brew it themselves, leading to such deadly results.

There is only one legal importer, which is able to meet scarcely a quarter of the demand, leading to alcohol shortages throughout the country, including at major five-star hotels and at tourist hot spots in Bali.

Further, the government levies huge taxes on those who sell and distribute alcohol. On top of a 170 percent tariff on imported spirits and wine, there is the 10 percent value-added tax at each point of sale, a luxury sales tax, an excise tax calculated by the alcohol content and regional government levies.

Finally, a government moratorium on new alcohol-producing businesses has been in effect since 1990.

It is no surprise then that illegal, unregulated alcohol is being distributed to unsuspecting foreign tourists.

The secular government is hesitant to relax its alcohol restrictions in deference to the country’s overwhelmingly Islamic population. More and more Indonesians are drinking these days, a concern for religious leaders and the government alike.

Restrictions are unlikely to relax anytime soon as the cultural debate continues. In the meantime, be careful what you drink.