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Estonia: Bootleg Alcohol Kills 36 - 2001-09-11

In Estonia, 36 people have died and more than 65 are in hospitals after drinking illegally-made alcohol. Estonian police have launched criminal investigations and arrested 10 suspects.

The victims bought the alcohol during the weekend in refilled soda bottles, from a bootleg supplier in the seaside town of Parnu in southern Estonia. It is believed the drink contained poisonous methyl-alcohol.

Doctors fear the death toll may rise as many of the hospitalized patients are in a coma, with more victims continuing to arrive at hospitals for treatment. Local police raided the suppliers, and seized the illegal liquor, which is being tested to see whether it contains methyl-alcohol. One of the suspected distributors has been hospitalized after drinking the liquor.

Up to one half of Estonia's population drinks bootleg alcohol. It sells for as little as one third of the price of liquor in stores, in a country where the average monthly wage is $329.

However poisonings are rare. This mass death is the country's worst case of alcohol poisoning. President Lennart Meri described it as "Estonia's shame and a legacy of the Soviet past."

President Meri criticized what he called a lackadaisical attitude on the part of officials toward bootleg alcohol. The media echoed this criticism. "It is virtually an open secret," a local newspaper said, "that the police know the location of all the outlets but harass them only if a need arises." According to official estimates, bootleg liquor accounts for more than one third of the Estonian alcohol market.