Is Counterfeit Alcohol Behind the Dominican Republic Deaths?

EJ Dickson

Over the past few months, a string of mysterious U.S. tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic has caught the attention of tourists all over the world. To date, there have been at least 10 tourist deaths connected to the Dominican Republic in the last year alone, with the latest  tourist, Louisiana woman Susan Simoneaux, dying a week after returning from her honeymoon in Punta Cana. Although an autopsy report is currently pending, like many of the other tourists who died after visiting the island, Simoneaux was reported to have had fluid in her lungs at the time of her death — and while Dominican Republic officials are insisting that the deaths are unrelated and that the island is still safe to visit, many are wondering just what the hell is going on.

To date, the most widely reported theory regarding the U.S. tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic is that they may have been linked to counterfeit alcohol, or bootleg liquor. This theory primarily stems from the fact that several of the deceased tourists, such as Pennsylvania women Miranda Schaup-Werner, 41, who died of a heart attack on May 25th; Yvette Monique Short, 51, who died in June 2018; and Robert Bell Wallace, 67, who died in April, all had drinks from the minibar prior to falling ill, albeit at two different resorts and on three separate occasions. (Schaup-Werner was staying at the Grand Bahia Principe Bouganville Hotel, while Wallace was staying at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana; Sport was staying at the Bahia Principe in Punta Cana.)

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On May 30th, a Maryland couple, Edward Holmes, 63, and Cynthia Day, 49, was also found dead in their rooms at the Bahia Principe Hotel in La Romana. Although it is unclear whether Holmes and Day also drank from the minibar prior to their deaths, Holmes, Day, and Schaup-Werner were all found to have fluid in their lungs at the time of their deaths, a condition known as pulmonary edema.

According to the New York Post, FBI investigators are looking into the counterfeit alcohol theory by comparing alcohol samples from at least one of the resorts, the Bahia Principe Hotel in La Romana, to blood samples from the victims. The FBI is reportedly trying to determine what type of liquor the tourists drank before their deaths, as well as whether the liquor was counterfeit or tainted with any dangerous chemicals.

But how, exactly, does counterfeit liquor end up in hotels, resorts, or restaurants — and what kinds of chemicals could be linked to such mysterious deaths? Here’s what we know about the counterfeit alcohol theory, and what we don’t.

What is counterfeit alcohol, and why is it dangerous?
Counterfeit alcohol is essentially bootleg liquor, produced outside the context of regulated alcohol production. “It is often cheaply produced and always unregulated but can appear to look and smell like alcohol produced by a licensed supplier,” Michael Bilello, the senior vice president of communications and marketing for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA), tells Rolling Stone. The International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD) differentiates counterfeit alcohol from other forms of bootleg alcohol, in that it is defined as a “fraudulent imitations of legitimate branded products.”

Counterfeit alcohol can sometimes be made or laced with substances such as embalming fluid, battery acid, or methanol, a synthetic chemical that is used in antifreeze and windshield wiper fluid. Even small amounts of methanol can be toxic, if not lethal, to humans, says Bilello. “It can cause a variety of symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, blindness, and even death,” he said. Sometimes, this can happen after just one drink.

Where have there been reports of counterfeit alcohol being sold?
There have been reports of deaths related to toxic bootleg alcohol all over the world, from Iran to Indonesia to Mexico. Earlier this year, there were at least 150 deaths linked to methyl alcohol poisoning in the state of Assam in India, which officials attributed to the sale of bootleg “country-made liquor” containing methanol. While not unheard of, there are relatively few counterfeit alcohol-related deaths in the United States, in large part due to a more rigorously regulated alcohol sales and distribution system than in other countries.

In the Dominican Republic specifically, “we’re unaware of regulators monitoring counterfeit alcohol,” Bilello says. But according to a 2018 IARD report, nearly 29% of total alcohol sales on the island are from illegal alcohol sales, according to a 2018 IARD report; though that number encompasses all unregulated alcohol sales and does not refer to counterfeit alcohol sales alone.

What is the evidence that counterfeit alcohol is linked to the deaths in the Dominican Republic?
As of now, there is none: it’s just a working theory, and Dominican Republic officials and resort owners have continued to maintain that the recent spate of tourist deaths is little more than a coincidence. The Bahia Principe has issued a statement on social media reassuring guests of the safety of the island and disputing the veracity of many of the media reports on the tourist deaths; one of the hotel chains linked to the recent tourist deaths, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana, reassured guests that it is in the process of removing liquor dispensers from all guests’ rooms and is contracting a U.S.-based third party testing lab “to provide inspections and laboratory testing of all food and beverage products and public spaces,” according to a statement sent to Rolling Stone.  

In an interview with the Cut, however, Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensic science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, did note that the effects of methanol poisoning are consistent with what was reported from some of the publicly released details from the tourists’ autopsies, such as fluid in the lungs and heart and respiratory failure.

“The heart will pump faster, blood pressure will increase, and the victim will breathe more rapidly, trying to acquire more oxygen into their lungs,” he told the Cut. “There are neurological effects as well, and the toxicity will also affect contractility of the heart muscle, causing heart failure. This can result in pulmonary edema and acute respiratory distress.”

How can you avoid drinking counterfeit alcohol?
While traveling, Bilello says, it’s best to look for the “four Ps”: place, product, price, and packaging. You should only purchase alcohol from licensed bars, restaurants, and retailers, rather than buying booze from a remote location or drinking anything offered to you by a stranger. It’s also a good idea to stick to drinking only brands you recognize. Even so, it’s important to check the label on the bottle for “misspelled words,” says Bilello; it’s also crucial to check the glue on the label to make sure it is firmly secured, as well as the seal on the bottle to ensure it hasn’t been tampered with.

To ensure you’re not ingesting any liquid that has been packaged under poor or unhygienic conditions, turn the bottle upside down and see how the bubbles rise. You should never drink any beverage that contains unidentified particles or sediment.

And as tempting as it may be to purchase a bottle of whiskey from a local store at an extremely low price, Bilello advises against it.

“If the price seems too cheap to be true, it probably is,” he says. “Be mindful of cheap, discount products.”

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