Turkish boozers resist alcohol restrictions — sometimes at deadly risk

An avalanche of taxes has made raki, Turkey’s national drink, a luxury product, fueling the proliferation of bootleg liquor with deadly consequences.

al-monitor A shopkeeper shows a legally produced bottle of raki, Istanbul, Turkey, March 3, 2005. Photo by MUSTAFA OZER/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

taxes, price hikes, consumers, alcohol, cafe, akp, restaurants

Oct 19, 2020

A fresh wave of deaths from spirits has swept through Turkey amid skyrocketing liquor prices, courtesy of exorbitant taxes levied by the government, coupled with new restrictions to curb the proliferation of home brewing. 

More than 50 people have died since last week after drinking counterfeit liquor or homemade spirits with dubious ingredients, according to officials and media reports. About 50 others remain in hospital, while the police are busy raiding illicit liquor manufacturers amid rising calls on the government to lower the taxes.

Restrictions designed to curb alcohol consumption have been a hallmark of the 18-year rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), part of a broader drive to impose the party’s conservative Islamic worldview on Turkish society, where many embrace a secular lifestyle. Raki — the anise-flavored national drink — has been the prime victim of huge tax hikes over the years. Die-hard raki lovers, however, have refused to back down, turning to making their favorite booze at home from ethyl alcohol, which is used also in the production of cleaning materials. The home brewing of beer and wine has similarly proliferated, as has the production of counterfeit alcohol.

In a move to hamper home brewing, the government banned the online sale of ethyl alcohol Oct. 1. The amended regulations also tightened government control over the licensing and operations of ethyl alcohol manufacturers. Market talk has it that further measures are likely to follow to deter home brewing.

Alcohol consumption in Turkey is rather modest compared to European countries, far from being a public health alarm justifying the restrictions. Alcohol consumption per capita stood at 1.3 liters (0.3 gallons) in 2017, down from 1.5 liters (0.4 gallons) in 2010 and well below the more than 10 liters (2.6 gallons) in Europe, according to World Health Organization data. 

Since 2013, however, the AKP has stepped up efforts to restrict alcohol sales and alcohol-serving establishments, mainly through tax hikes but also regulatory moves concerning the licensing, operation and advertising activities of relevant businesses. Alcohol service has been effectively banned from official receptions, creating a social pressure on private gatherings to follow suit. Bars, taverns and other alcohol-serving establishments have faced some of the toughest restrictions as part of measures against the coronavirus pandemic.

The avalanche of tax hikes has made raki a luxury product. The price tag on a 700-milliliter bottle, which Turks call simply “the big one,” is 160 Turkish liras ($20) at present. More than half of wage-earners in Turkey today are paid the minimum monthly wage of 2,325 liras ($294), which buys only about 15 bottles. In other words, “the big one” is worth nearly 7% of the income of a minimum wage earner. Its pre-tax price, however, is less than $6. The remaining $14 — or 70% of what the consumer pays — go to government coffers in the form of two taxes — a value-added tax amounting to $3 and a much bigger special consumption tax of $11. All in all, a 234% tax is placed on the pre-tax value. 

Last year, indirect taxes levied on alcoholic beverages accounted for 3% of all tax revenues.

From 2003, the AKP’s first full year in power, to 2012, the consumer price index, which determines inflation, rose 204%, while the price of raki increased 236%. The real decoupling took place in the ensuing years as the AKP grew more authoritarian, turned up pressure to suppress political dissent and became more assertive in efforts to shape social life according to its Islamic values. In the seven years to September 2020, the consumer price index rose 213%, while raki prices shot up 359%. The special consumption tax collected from alcohol sales amounted to 10% of all revenues in this category last year, doubling from 5% in 2006.

Not surprisingly, both consumption and production have fallen. In 2019, Turkey’s raki output stood at 28 million liters (7.4 gallons), a 36% decline from 44 million liters (11.6 gallons) in 2004, despite an average population increase of 1.5% per year and a two-fold increase in the inflow of tourists. Beer and wine productions have relatively increased, but not as much as to compensate for the decline in raki.

Meanwhile, a steep increase in ethyl alcohol sales, which hit 212 million liters (7.4 million gallons) last year, is attributed in part to the spread of homemade raki — the boozers’ answer to the government. The internet abounds with websites and videos teaching neophytes how to make the national drink at home, while old hands boast that they are producing raki at about 35 liras ($4.50) per liter (0.3 gallons), a fifth of the retail price, and developing their own recipes.

The price hikes have badly hit Turkey’s taverns, a beloved fixture of social life, where friends would meet over long dinners in the company of booze, mostly raki. Since the price of raki is even higher on the eatery scene, taverns complain of a big loss of clientele and are turning to some innovative methods to draw the footfall back. Desperate to keep afloat, many taverns today allow patrons to bring in their raki, be it from the shop around the corner or their own home produce.

Yet no matter how creative and industrious Turks have been in circumventing the restrictions, the government’s pressure to shape lifestyles is growing intolerable. And at the raki tables, the indignation is growing louder.

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