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Worldwide alcohol consumption: report


TORONTO (CP) - There's much ado about the age-old tradition of moonshining in new international research which has a twist of Canadian content.

Eric Single, a Toronto expert on addictions, is the sole Canadian contributor to the book Moonshine Markets, which concludes that unregulated, illegal alcohol may account for as much as half of total liquor consumption worldwide.

Other findings in the book are also bound to raise a few eyebrows about the booze in glasses traditionally raised for toasts.

For instance, bootleg moonshine has a reputation for being a frequent cause of alcohol poisoning - either because of too-high levels of alcohol, or illegal and potentially deadly ingredients like rubbing alcohol.

But, according to Single and others, the likelihood of moonshine poisoning is not necessarily higher than the risk of poisoning from commercially produced alcohol.

"In the fairly recent past, we've found that alcohol has health benefits," Single, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and adviser at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in Ottawa, said in a recent interview.

"The consumption of alcohol (from all sources) probably saves more lives than it causes deaths because of the cardiovascular benefits" of moderate consumption, added Single, referring to mounds of research dating back to the late 1980s.

Moonshine Markets, which includes input from about two dozen international researchers, explores illegal alcohol-making and consumption in Brazil, India, Mexico, Tanzia, Zambia and Russia.

The book evolved from a 1999 meeting by the U.S.-based International Center for Alcohol Policies, a non-profit organization funded by 10 large multinational alcohol-production companies.

It chronicles, in each of the six countries, the varied customs and rituals surrounding moonshine, and the history, cultural significance and legal and socioeconomic framework of alcohol production and consumption.

There's scarce research on illicit alcohol in developed countries, and even less in Third World countries and Russia, which is why they were targeted for Moonshine Markets, said Marcus Grant, president of the International Center for Alcohol Policies.

"The most surprising finding was that the quality of the beverages, certainly those we looked at, was much higher than we thought to be the case," Grant said from Washington.

In Tanzania, for instance, a shocking 90 per cent of all alcohol produced is non-commercial, consisting mostly of traditional opaque beers, the book says. In Zambia, 29 per cent of those surveyed consumed kachasu, a distilled spirit made of sorghum, maize, sour beer, sugar and yeast.

"You hear and read about cases of alcohol poisoning, about people dying and going blind, but in fact the number of alcohol poisonings are quite small compared to the amount (of moonshine) produced," said Grant.

"You would think the alcohol produced in those countries would be low quality, but in fact they're quite potable."

In Russia, for instance, chemical analyses of 80 samples of samogon, a distilled spirit with an alcohol content similar to vodka, showed that half were of "rather high quality," the book notes.

But Grant acknowledged that like in any unregulated industry, there are illicit alcohol horror stories.

In Africa, India and Russia, for instance, there have been reports about "unscrupulous dealers" eager to make a quick profit by using highly toxic ingredients like car-battery acid and human feces to speed the alcohol-fermentation process.

Commercial alcohol makers and distributors point to years of alcohol-poisoning horror stories in Canada.

For instance, in 1997, three people north of Timmins, Ont., died of methyl alcohol poisoning after drinking bootleg moonshine, while a year earlier a Newfoundland teenager died under similar circumstances.

Chris Layton, a spokesman for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, said store-bought goods have at least one advantage over unregulated alcohol.

"At the LCBO, one of the things we put first and foremost is we stand by the quality and the safety of the products that we sell. . . . We have a world-class quality assurance department and laboratory that tests all products before they go to the shelf," he said in an interview.

"We feel we have brought consumers into our stores from the illegal markets," added Layton. "More and more they are saying we want to be sure of what we're consuming and want to search for quality."

Single's expertise lies in evaluating the economic impact of unregulated alcohol on the commercial industry.

"Unrecorded alcohol has significant economic consequences," Single writes.

Alcohol sold in the black market, for instance, doesn't allow for governments to get their tax grab.

However, adds Single, "small-scale, non-commercial production (of alcohol) also brings certain economic benefits to local economies, providing employment and income (often supplemental income) to producers and lower-priced alcohol to consumers."



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