PRAGUE – The Czech Republic has taken an unprecedented emergency measure and banned the sale of spirits with more than 20 percent alcohol content as it battles a wave of methanol poisonings that has already killed 19 people.
Health Minister Leos Heger said Friday the ban was effective immediately and applies nationwide. It covers all possible sales locations, including restaurants, hotels, stores and the Internet.
Kiosks and markets had earlier been banned from selling spirits with more than 30 percent alcohol content, but Heger said the measure has not been effective enough because "an absolute majority" of people who have been poisoned bought the toxic alcohol in restaurants, bars and stores.
Heger said the ban could possibly take weeks. It is estimated that up to 20 percent of all the liquor in restaurants across the country is likely made on the black market
That the death toll from the poisonings reached 19 Friday after a 66-year-old woman was found dead in the northeastern city of Havirov and the first person was hospitalized in Prague also prompted the minister to take the step, Heger said in a brief statement late Friday.
Police said a 30-year man has been in critical condition in a Prague after buying toxic booze in a shop.
Dozens of people have been hospitalized, some in critical condition after drinking vodka and rum laced with methanol. The problem has appeared largely centered in northeastern Czech Republic.
Methanol is mainly used for industrial purposes, but unscrupulous criminal networks sometimes misuse it to illegally produce cheap liquor because it's cheap and impossible to distinguish from real drinking alcohol.
Labs all across the country have been testing round the clock samples of suspicion alcohol that has been seized during police raids.
Thousands of liters of illegal alcohol have been seized and almost 20 people arrested, but police spokeswoman Stepanka Zatloukalova said Friday it still wasn't clear what the sources are for the worst methanol poisoning "in decades."
Meanwhile, in Prague, restaurant manager Jonathan Weinstein said if the ban "were to last a month or two, of course, it's a big problem."
"It harms producers," said Petr Pavlik, chairman of a Czech union of spirits producers.
Associated Press video journalist Adam Pemble in Prague contributed to this report.