Avoiding Tainted Alcohol While Traveling

It’s not a pretty travel story. In January, a Wisconsin family vacationed at a five-star, all-inclusive resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Within two hours of arrival, their two college kids were unconscious, face down in the pool. The 20-year-old daughter died.

Since that incident was reported recently by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, numerous eerily similar incidents have surfaced, all at upscale, all-inclusive resorts in the region—including Playa del Carmen, Cancun and Cozumel, as well as Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta. Some victims report they were robbed, sexually assaulted and otherwise injured, according to the newspaper. Many were hospitalized. Some said they were forced to pay clinics huge cash sums to get treatment.

In all of the incidents, the hotels involved blamed excessive drinking. Those who became ill and blacked out, only to wake up in their hotel rooms with no memory of what had happened, blame tainted alcohol.

These troubling, even tragic, events prompted the State Department this week to post to its health and safety page about travel to Mexico:

“There have been allegations that consumption of tainted or substandard alcohol has resulted in illness or blacking out. If you choose to drink alcohol, it is important to do so in moderation, and to stop and seek medical attention if you begin to feel ill.”

Alarmed Mexican authorities say they will improve inspections and controls for tainted alcohol at tourist resorts.

It’s Not Just Mexico

Although the ugly glare of suspicion is on Mexico at the moment, it is not alone in having problems with bootleg liquor that could be adulterated with grain alcohol or other dangerous substances.

London’s Daily Mirror recently warned readers to be aware of drinks that “smell like nail varnish.” In 2012, 30 people died from tainted vodka in the Czech Republic, notes Travel Skills, a website that also quotes Brown-Forman, one of the world’s biggest distillers, as saying one-third of the world’s alcohol may be bootlegged and “very dangerous to the point of being poisonous.”

Common Sense Tips for Safe Drinking

No amount of caution, short of total abstinence from alcohol, can assure complete safety. But how much fun would that be? Travel Skills offers these suggestions for minimizing your risk when traveling abroad:

  • Smell your drink. Observe its color. Its taste. Is anything odd?
  • Don’t drink alone, especially in unfamiliar surroundings. Keep your guard up.
  • Avoid shots, which numb your awareness.
  • For the highest level of safety, stick to drinking from bottles or cans you can open yourself, or watch being opened.
  • At the first signs of nausea, dizziness or drowsiness, stop drinking and let someone know.
  • Don’t leave food or drink unattended.
  • Have good travel insurance and the insurer’s emergency number in your wallet

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