Unsafe Alcohol Kills 4 in Abstemious Norway

OSLO, Norway -- Toxic moonshine has killed four Norwegians this month, shocking a health-conscious nation and showing how sky-high prices for alcohol have lured unscrupulous smugglers.

A 52-year-old Norwegian man died Tuesday after drinking alcohol laced with methanol, used as an ingredient in paint stripper. Three other people have died this month from methanol poisoning and about 20 have been hospitalized.

The deaths are front-page news in Norway, which topped a 2002 UN ranking as the best nation in which to live. Many are shocked to find the rich, health-conscious Nordic country sharing a cause of death most frequent among the poor in developing countries.

The tainted alcohol may be part of a badly made batch widely sold across south Norway, which police suspect came from Eastern Europe. Local bootleggers generally make smaller quantities. Mafia-like gangs in Eastern Europe have been taking over the illegal liquor market in Norway in recent years from south European suppliers.

More than a few drops of methanol -- a colorless alcohol added to give moonshine an extra kick -- can make you blind. In one of the worst cases, more than 100 people died in Kenya two years ago after drinking methanol-tainted alcohol.

Norwegian police were questioning two men Tuesday about the deaths, the most serious poisoning scandal in Norway in years."We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg, but we hope this case will give us the chance to dig deeper into liquor gangs," Anne-Karin Hannevold, narcotics chief with the Oslo police, told the daily Aftenposten.

Smugglers are lured to Norway because consumer prices for everything from wine to meat are higher than in neighboring EU members Sweden or Finland. The gap has widened since Norwegians voted "No" to joining the EU in 1994 when its neighbors said "Yes."

Pressure from Brussels is making Sweden and Finland ease restrictions on alcohol imports and cut drink prices. In recent years, Norwegian media have had stories about smuggling gangs for everything from chocolate to frozen ducks.

Sentences for smuggling alcohol range up to just two years.

"It's far too low," said Finance Minister Per Kristian Foss, who predicted almost a decade ago that a Norwegian "No" to joining the EU would lead to creation of "the world's longest sales counter" -- the border -- with thousands of Norwegians shopping legally in Swedish supermarkets.

Smugglers can make profits of perhaps 100 crowns ($13.39) a bottle in a country where state liquor stores, the only outlet, charge about 400 crowns for a cheap bottle of whisky.

But the high prices do discourage drinking -- Norwegian annual alcohol consumption is among the lowest in rich nations at about 5.6 liters a person, less than half the French level, though life expectancy in both countries is around 79 years.

Norwegian consumption figures, however, exclude an estimated 0.67 liters bought legally in duty free shops, a riskier 0.18 liters from smugglers, and on average a liter made at home, according to Norway's state narcotics group Sirus.