The dangers of fake alcohol

The dangers of drinking fake alcohol, how to recognise it, and what to do if you see fake alcohol being sold.

Producing fake alcohol is being seen as a way of making money, and it’s sold cheaply. But it’s a problem because of the risks it poses to people’s health, causing anything from nausea to blindness and even death.  

What is fake alcohol?

Fake or illegally produced alcohol is alcohol that is produced in unlicensed distilleries or people's homes and intended for sale. It is illegal (1) to distill and sell alcohol to the public in the UK without a licence from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). 

From 2005 to July 2011, HMRC seized nearly 15 million litres of illegally produced alcohol.

Meanwhile, Trading Standards Institute officers have reported an increase in fake or illegally produced alcohol being sold in the UK, much of which contained potentially dangerous chemicals (3).

“We’re very concerned about this trend in the availability of fake alcohol,” says Ron Gainsford, Chief Executive of the Trading Standards Institute. “It’s not just about false bargains, counterfeit spirits and wine could be lethal.”

Health risks from fake alcohol

Properly produced and certified alcoholic drinks are made with ethanol – alcohol that’s safe to drink in moderation. But fake alcoholic drinks can be produced using other cheaper types of alcohol which can have serious adverse effects on your health. 

Drinkaware’s Chief Medical Advisor Professor Paul Wallace explains: “Commonly used substitutes for ethanol include chemicals used in cleaning fluids, nail polish remover and automobile screen wash, as well as methanol and isopropanol which are used in antifreeze and some fuels. These other types of alcohol can produce similar effects to ethanol in terms of making you feel tipsy. But they are also potentially very dangerous.”

Drinking alcohol containing these chemicals can cause nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, drowsiness and dizziness. Drinking it can lead to kidney or liver problems and even coma. Methanol, the substance which has been found in fake vodka (4) can cause permanent blindness.

Find out how alcohol can affect your body here...

“Drinking illegally produced alcohol should be avoided at all costs,” says Dr Wallace. “You don’t know what’s in it in terms of the actual chemicals – and you don’t know the strength of what you're drinking because it’s not been produced to the standards of commercial alcohol.”

How to recognise fake alcohol

Jeremy Beadles, former Chief Executive of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, believes most consumers won’t come across fake alcohol and says that it’s important to keep the problem in perspective. “The vast majority of alcohol in the UK is produced and sold legitimately,” he says. “Most pubs, corner shops, off licenses and other retailers are completely legitimate businesses and wouldn’t get involved with it.”

However, it’s important to know how to spot—and avoid—fake alcohol if you do come across it. 

According to the Trading Standards Institute, people need to remember ‘the 4 Ps’: Place, Price, Packaging and Product. 


1. Place: Make sure you buy from a reputable supermarket, off licence or shop.

2. Price: If a deal looks too good to be true, it most probably is.

3. Packaging: Look out for:

  • Poor quality labelling, including things like spelling mistakes. 
  • UK duty stamp—spirits in bottles 35cl or larger and 30% ABV or higher have to have a duty stamp, which indicates that tax has either been paid or is due to be paid on the contents of the bottle. They’re usually incorporated into the label or stuck on the glass. If it’s not there, it’s illegal
  • Properly sealed caps. If the seal is broken, don’t drink it. Even if it’s not illegal, it could have been tampered with. 
  • Fake bar codes. If you have an app on your mobile that scans bar codes, scan it and see if it’s listed as the correct product.

4. Product: Look out for fake versions of well-known brands and be wary of unusual brand names you haven’t seen before. Vodka, the most commonly counterfeited spirit, shouldn’t have any white particles or sediment in the bottle. If you see this, the vodka could have been diluted with tap water. If any alcohol tastes or smells bad, don't drink it. Particularly look out for the smell of nail varnish.

What to do if you spot fake alcohol

If you think you’ve drunk fake alcohol, the best thing to do is to seek medical advice. You can also report it to your local environmental health officer, call Citizens Advice Consumer Helpline on 08454 04 05 06 or the Customs Hotline on 0800 59 5000. 

Are you drinking too much?

Find out how many units you are drinking

Compare your drinking to the government's lower risk guidelines.

Try our Unit Calculator

Take a drinking self assessment

Answer these simple questions and find out what kind of a relationship you have with alcohol.

Assess your drinking

How to cut down

We have many tips and strategies for cutting down at home or when out and about.

Tips on how to cut down

References

Page updated: October 2014