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