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Indonesia's Beer Ban Continues to Cost Lives as Toxic Black Market Brew Kills Nearly 100

The problem keeps getting worse.

by Adi Renaldi
11 April 2018, 10:14am

A steam roller crushes bottles of illegal liquor seized by police in West Jakarta. Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters.

It's called "miras oplosan," and it just might be the deadliest alcoholic drink in the world. This often toxic brew, a homemade cocktail full of dangerous additives like cologne, nail polish remover, and mosquito repellant, is readily available across Indonesia—where a ban on the sale of safer alcoholic drinks like beer in minimarkets is still in effect.

Last week, 90 people died in a spate of fatalities that hit multiple locations at the same time. There were deaths in Jakarta, West Java, and Papua, with 45 fatalities alone in the city of Bandung—which has since declared a state of emergency in an attempt to stop the body count from climbing higher.

"The effects kick in 10 minutes after consumption," Enggar Pareanom, the chief of the drugs division at the West Java Police, told local media about the toxic brew. "Some of them got on their motorbike and immediately fell over."

Police in Bandung arrested the owners of two small shops accused of selling the deadly liquor. And, nationwide, officers routinely sweep the streets, confiscating bottles of miras oplosan and crushing them with a stream roller in highly publicized press events.

A victim's coffin is loaded into the back of a hearse in Bandung, West Java. Photo by Raisan Al Farisi/Antara Foto/Reuters

But there's an even easier way to stop all these deaths, it's just not a solution that's going to win anyone political points in Indonesia—end the beer ban.

This ban, a controversial move by the Ministry of Trade that seems to affect everywhere but Bali, pulled popular, and cheap, local beers like Bintang and Anker off the shelves of convenience stores back in 2015 in a decision many saw as a gift to religious fundamentalists (it was the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) who originally brought alcohol bans before the Supreme Court—and won—in 2013).

But the ministry's regulations failed to curb the sale miras oplosan, a homemade alcohol sold on the black market. This has created an environment where, today, it's far easier to get your hands on a bottle of unregulated, potentially deadly liquor than a bottle of beer brewed by a legitimate company.

Here's why: while the ministry's ban still allowed supermarkets, bars, restaurants, and hotels to sell beer, it shut-off lower income Indonesians from what was once a vibrant part of their nightlife scene—minimarkets. Before the ban, minimarkets like Indomaret and 7-Eleven were popular hang out spots for those who couldn't afford to drink at bars, where a bottle of beer can cost three times more than it does in a store. And hard alcohol like whiskey and vodka are so heavily taxed that they are out of reach for most lower-income Indonesians.

But, despite what religious hardliners say, plenty of people still want to drink. And after the beer ban, miras oplosan is one of what are really only a handful of options available for a lot of people.

“For lower-income citizens, buying legal alcohol has become a challenge," said Devie Rahmawati, a lecturer at Universitas Indonesia. "The demand is answered by black market traders who saw the potential economy of these second-rate alcoholic drinks."

The thing is, none of this is really a surprise. Experts predicted the deadly consequences of the beer ban back when it first went into effect. Last year. VICE ran a story about how deaths from bootleg liquor had gone up 226 percent once the bans started to be enforced. During the same period, the number of shops selling miras oplosan rose 75 percent, according to a report by the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS).

When the government is unable to regulate the sale of an illegal liquor on the black market, the only way to curb deaths from toxic miras oplosan is to reverse the beer ban and provide them with a safer alternative, Rofi Udarrojat, a researcher at CIPS, wrote in the report.

“The government instead takes an opposite stand by banning alcoholic drinks,” Rofi wrote. "Without realistic and rational planning, the issue of illegal alcohol sales and consumption will only lead to more deaths.”