The Dominican Republic has beautiful beaches and fun-filled activities for Americans on vacation. However, an unwelcome component of vacations to this Central American country this summer has been mysterious illnesses and the deaths of eight Americans.

While on vacation, these eight Americans became sick and died after reportedly drinking from local bars or hotels. Officials in the government of the Dominican Republic claim that the deaths are unrelated. According to the New York Post, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has taken blood samples and is analyzing the results to determine if bootleg alcohol (or fake alcohol) could have caused these deaths.

Fake alcohol can lead to adverse reactions, even death, and is created outside of regulated systems. In the United States, alcohol distillation and distribution is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These regulations extend to brewing, blending, importing, wholesaling and otherwise selling alcoholic beverages.

In the Dominican Republic, alcohol is not subject to American regulatory bodies. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that there are no regulations in the Dominican Republic on:

  • Alcohol sales promotion
  • Alcohol sponsorship
  • Alcohol labeling
  • Alcohol health warnings

While no confirmed evidence exists in the deaths of these eight Americans, there are multiple reasons to believe they could be alcohol-related. Non-regulated alcohol represents a significant problem for tourists traveling abroad.

What Is Fake Alcohol?

According to the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency, fake alcohol is created in unlicensed facilities and sold under the guise and packaging of legitimate alcoholic beverage brands. Fake alcohol may be very dangerous as it can be mixed with additional ingredients.

In countries with regulatory oversight, the production of fake alcohol is illegal. Hotels and bars in foreign countries that fall under a United States brand are still subject to FDA regulation. The FDA conducts international or field studies to ensure compliance in all U.S.-related operations.

According to the Center for Alcohol Policy, these industries are often a means of income for organized crime groups or officials who are corrupt. Hotels or bars in foreign countries that are not within a U.S. brand can provide fake alcohol without legal consequences.

What Makes Bootleg Alcohol So Dangerous?

There are many dangers of fake or bootleg alcohol. First, it is unregulated. Consumers do not have a clear understanding of what they are consuming. Regulations that many countries have for alcoholic beverages include:

  • How much alcohol is present per unit of liquid
  • Labeling guidelines to inform consumers
  • The ingredients used to make the beverage
  • Disclosure of any additives or additional ingredients

When these regulations are not present, the concentration of alcohol in a beverage and the actual ingredients are unknown. This can have serious health implications, including concerns of ethanol content and methyl alcohol poisoning.

Ethanol is used in alcoholic beverages. It is often called grain alcohol because it is produced by fermentation and requires processing to be consumable. If this processing is inadequate, ethanol can have detrimental health effects.

Methyl is a form of alcohol that should not be consumed. It may be present in fake alcohol, specifically fake vodka. Methyl can cause blindness and even death when ingested. Unexpected ingredients and potentially harmful substances are one of the many drawbacks to consuming fake alcohol.

How to Spot Fake Alcohol

Guidelines for what to look for and how to spot  fake alcohol include:

  • Brands: Local or unfamiliar brands may be recommended to you while traveling abroad. These brands may be produced illegally or outside of the country’s regulations. Drinking local or unfamiliar brands without further research on the brand and its ingredients can be dangerous.
  • Containers: Alcohol bottles may be cleverly designed to mimic familiar brands. Fake alcohol containers may be misspelled, unsealed or otherwise designed incorrectly. These could be signs of noncommercial, unsafe beverages.
  • Locations: Fake alcoholic drinks can be sold in a number of unconventional locations. Eschewing the excitement of a swim-up bar, local restaurant or local hangout may be the safest option for avoiding unsafe alcohol.

What To Do If You Think You Were Given Fake Alcohol

The similarity of fake alcohol effects to regular intoxication can complicate diagnosis. If you suspect you have consumed fake alcohol, it is important to get immediate medical help. Some common side effects include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive vomiting
  • Staggering

Consumption of methyl may cause permanent blindness. Other kinds of fake alcohol can cause death.

Report fake alcohol to local authorities. Having a good time on vacation shouldn’t be life-threatening. It is important to take the right precautions to ensure that you imbibe safely.