We need to talk about Indonesia’s problem of methanol poisoning
IF you walk around nightlife spots in Indonesia like Jalan Legian in Bali, you’ll see the signs. They offer you “vodka and coke” for as little as IDR15,000 (US$1.10); free spirit-based cocktails for ladies; or 2-for-1 promotions on mixed drinks.
How is this possible in a country where the tax on alcohol is currently set at 150 percent?
And the “vodka”, “gin” or “whisky” on the advertisements will almost certainly be arak. In its most basic form, arak is a traditional liquor made from coconut palm, sugarcane or rice, which has been enjoyed in Indonesia for centuries.
But many visitors to the archipelago don’t realize that arak has been linked to a spate of alcohol-related incidents in recent years, some of which have resulted in the deaths of Indonesians and tourists alike due to methanol poisoning.
Methanol is naturally produced during the fermentation process in alcoholic drinks and presents as a colorless and odorless liquid. But as little as 30ml of methanol can kill you. In most distilling processes, the alcohol product is heated and the methanol is burned off, making the resulting liquor safe to drink.
— Amit X Gupta (@amitxgupta) September 6, 2016
In recent years, due to the increasing demand for cheap drinks; the high tax making real alcohol unavailable to many; and the willingness of local businesses to lower costs, this process has been increasingly eschewed, meaning that methanol is often still present in the finished bottle of arak.
The resulting figures make for uncomfortable reading. According to a report by the Centre for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS), “Nationwide, 487 people died from illegal alcohol poisoning between 2013 and 2016 – a 226 percent increase over figures from 2008 to 2012.”
There have also been reported deaths of tourists not only in Bali, but also on the Gili Islands in Lombok and in Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra, making methanol poisoning a countrywide issue in Indonesia.
The official figures should also be considered conservative estimates, as many local and tourist deaths are often misdiagnosed and attributed to alcohol poisoning. One of the main problems comes when an individual seeks treatment for methanol poisoning and is then often incorrectly treated for excessive alcohol consumption.
To add to the confusion, there have even been reports (perhaps due to Indonesia’s contentious relationship with alcohol) of deaths being blamed on demons or as punishment for ingesting “forbidden” drinks.
So what is the Indonesian government doing about the problem?
If anything, methanol poisoning has become even more widespread thanks to the new law that was passed in 2015 that prohibited alcohol being sold in the majority of mini markets across Indonesia. This was the brainchild of the then trade minister Rachmat Gobel, who claimed that alcohol was corrupting Indonesian youth.
Unfortunately, in making alcohol more difficult to purchase, the law has also made it more dangerous, something that was foreseen by the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who expressed concern that “the ban could encourage the illegal sale of alcoholic beverages in the city”.
His prophecy was absolutely right as Indonesians, unable to purchase alcoholic drinks in mini markets, have had to turn to unlicensed “bottle shops”. The alcohol sold in these shops, which is often known as “miras oplosan”, is not regulated and could therefore contain lethal amounts of methanol.
In their report, the CIPS echoed the conclusion that the ban has been a complete failure: “Our research in six Indonesian cities confirmed that, instead of curbing the desire for intoxication, prohibition facilitates the growth of black markets, a case especially evident in areas with partial prohibition that limits the distribution of alcohol to particular zones.”
Where the Indonesian government has failed to tackle the problems surrounding bootleg liquor however, two families of the victims of methanol poisoning have started campaigns to educate tourists about the dangers.
The first of these is LIAM – Lifesaving Initiatives About Methanol which was founded by Lhani Davies when her son Liam, an Australian national, died after drinking vodka that contained methanol on the island of Gili Trawangan in 2013.
The charitable fund now works to train medical staff in Indonesia on how to recognize methanol poisoning and treat victims, and also campaigns to warn tourists about fake alcohol.
Methanol poisoning in Mexico. Not just an Indo problem it seems. https://t.co/BMMGQKX2rT
— Aisyah Llewellyn (@BRITgrlINDOfood) August 20, 2017
Another initiative is the CHEZ – Save a Life Campaign which was started by the Emmons family from the United Kingdom. The campaign was founded in memory of their daughter and sister Cheznye Emmons who died in 2013 after drinking contaminated gin in Bukit Lawang in Sumatra.
The family spreads awareness of the risks of drinking illicit alcohol through their charity events, poster campaign and Facebook page.
These campaigns are now gaining traction with tourists to Bali, but methanol poisoning still kills on a regular basis across Indonesia due to the continued lack of awareness of both victims and medical staff.
For individuals with suspected methanol poisoning, it is imperative to seek medical attention immediately, crucially in a facility that is able to provide haemodialysis, which will remove methanol from the system.
Many consumers, however, don’t realize that they have been the victims of methanol poisoning before it is too late. There is no way to detect methanol in drinks by taste or smell alone, and the initial symptoms often look similar to those of a hangover.
Headaches, abdominal pain, sensitivity to light, nausea and loss of appetite are common initially, but one of the key differentiating symptoms of methanol poisoning is blurred vision, caused as the methanol begins to attack the nervous system.
The timing is also critical, as the symptoms of methanol poisoning typically take 12-24 hours to manifest, and if consumers have been drinking over a long period then they may often be asleep or still intoxicated.
So how can visitors avoid methanol poisoning in Indonesia?
Unfortunately, due to the lack of government action in clamping down on illicit alcohol manufacturers, consumers are pretty much on their own. The only real way to guard against methanol poisoning is to either stick to beer or drink duty-free spirits imported from abroad.
Another important factor, like it or not, is the realization that it would be impossible for Indonesian bars and clubs to make a profit on selling IDR15,000 (US$1.10) drinks if they use imported, licensed spirits. It’s bad news for backpackers on a budget, but if you want to avoid fake alcohol that could kill you, then the old adage applies.
If the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.