Tobacco confiscations also on the rise, prompting concern that focus is moving away from counterfeit clothing and electronic goods
Seizures of counterfeit alcohol by trading standards authorities have soared fivefold in two years, according to research which shows how criminal gangs are tapping into the demand for bargain booze.
The findings ? the first to give a detailed national picture measuring criminal activity in different sectors relating to trading standards ? have prompted concern that local authorities may focus on alcohol seizures to the detriment of other categories such as consumer electronics.
Worryingly, the investigation revealed no formal method for sharing intelligence between public health authorities and the drinks industry to identify fake alcohol, which often contains substances that can cause severe injury or even death.
The research was carried out by Engineering & Technology magazine, published by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, based on the results of freedom of information requests to all the trading standards authorities in the UK except for Northern Ireland.
Of the 110 trading standards authorities approached, 82 responded. They reported that in the 12 months from June 2010, there were 158 seizures of counterfeit alcohol, compared with 72 and 31 seizures in the two preceding years. Seizures of fake tobacco tripled over the period, from 43 in 2008-2009 to 134 in 2010-2011.
Late last year consumers tempted to buy cheap alcohol to see in the new year were warned by the Local Government Association of the risks of drinking fake vodka. Tests on bottles seized across the UK revealed high levels of methanol ? an ingredient used to make anti-freeze that can cause blindness ? as well as dangerous industrial solvents.
In July 2011, five men lost their lives in an explosion at an industrial unit in Boston, Lincolnshire where illegal alcohol was being distilled.
During the same period in which alcohol seizures rose fivefold, the research reveals, seizures of consumer electronics more than halved, while those involving fake branded clothing and luxury goods fell by almost two-thirds.
The drop in some categories could reflect the strain on the resources of local authorities due to budget cuts ? forcing them to switch resources away from seizing fake consumer electronics and branded clothing in particular.
Globally, the trade in counterfeit electronics is worth $100bn. Many counterfeit consumer electronic products are manufactured in China and the Asia Pacific region and smuggled into the UK. These products often fall well short of UK and EU safety standards ? causing a hazard to unsuspecting consumers.
Kris Sangani, consumer technology editor at E&T magazine, who led the investigation, said: "Most of the evidence points to a policy change by trading standards authorities to target alcohol and tobacco rather than any decrease in illegal activity in other categories such as counterfeit electronics."
She said that without any guidance, there was no compulsion for A&E departments to record or investigate instances of alcohol poisoning related to fake alcohol: "Other than providing a public 'hotline' to report suspected counterfeit alcohol and the most basic guidance, such as looking out for spelling mistakes and other obvious discrepancies, there is no formal co-operation between the drinks industry and the NHS."
A spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association said: "It's important to remember that this report refers to counterfeit product illegally produced for which legitimate companies in the sector cannot be held responsible.
"Counterfeit alcohol is bad for consumers and bad for businesses which produce and sell alcohol legitimately. We advise consumers and retailers to buy alcohol only from reputable outlets and suppliers.
"The drinks industry works closely with the authorities to combat counterfeiting ? the WSTA recently launched a fraud prevention unit to help police and enforcement agencies tackle this and other forms of fraud."