SINGAPORE: At the birthday parties and family celebrations Nigel* used to attend, alcohol was freely available. He was then in his early teens.
“It was just there, and the uncles would say, come here and have a drink young man, and we would just pick it up, no permission needed,” he recalled. “It was all about being funny and jovial.
“I just gulped it down, and that was it, but over the years I started to like it.”
But this early introduction to the pleasures of alcohol was the start of his journey down the road of addiction: At his peak, Nigel was drinking about 36 to 40 cans of beer a day.
ALCOHOL ADDICTION ‘NO DIFFERENT’ FROM DRUG ADDICTION
Although it is socially acceptable to drink alcohol, addiction specialists Channel NewsAsia spoke to say it can be a lethal drug.
“Because alcohol is so easily available and part of our culture, many people may be drinking at dangerous levels without seeking help, as it has already become part of their lifestyle,” said Dr Gomathinayagam Kandasami, chief of the Addiction Medicine Department of the National Addictions Management Service (NAMS).
“As a doctor, I can say that whether you develop a drug addiction or alcohol addiction, there is no difference,” he added. “Addiction destroys you and your family, and increases the risk of dying early.”
He also cited statistics from the 2010 Singapore Mental Health Study, which showed that 96.2 per cent of those affected by alcohol abuse did not seek help. According to the study, which are the only local statistics available on the issue at a national level, alcohol abuse is also one of the three most common mental health disorders in Singapore.
The abuse usually begins in a social setting, said Dr Thomas Lee, consultant psychiatrist at the Resilienz Clinic.
“I very rarely find patients who start their drinking alone,” he noted. “Sometimes, they are also introduced to alcohol by their parents or family members, and they find they like the taste of it.”
But when their drinking starts to interfere with their daily life, where they may not be able to go to work without having a drink first … that’s when it starts to become a problem.”
Dr Kandasami added that drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short span of time – for example, four or five drinks in half an hour – is one precursor to problem drinking. If left unchecked, he said, problem drinking can develop into addiction.
“If they don’t drink, they will develop a lot of withdrawal symptoms,” he explained. “They could get shakes or sweats when they wake up in the morning, so they end up drinking a can of beer to start their day.”
And, because it takes time for the addiction to develop, both doctors said the patients they usually see have been drinking heavily for many years before they are compelled – usually by family members, or when they hit a crisis – to seek help.
They noted that the patients they see are typically older – between the mid-thirties to their fifties – and most had started drinking in their teens or early twenties.
“By that time,” said Dr Lee, “they would already have damaged their liver, or their memory has started failing.”
NIPPING THE PROBLEM IN THE BUD
This is why nightspots, bars and liquor importers hope to address problem drinking where it all begins: In social settings.
The Singapore Nightlife Business Association (SNBA) has teamed up with the European Chamber of Commerce’s (EuroCham) wine, spirits and beer committee to form an alliance aimed at promoting responsible drinking.
“We want to make sure that Singapore is perceived as a safe place to go out at night, that people don’t find an environment where others are drinking more than they should,” said general manager of Moet Hennessy Diageo Singapore David White.
The company imports and distributes premium wines and spirits, and is on the EuroCham wine, spirits and beer committee.
“As suppliers, it’s also the right thing to do, because we want to make sure we are self-regulating the industry and that in the long term, we are not impacted negatively in any way,” he added.
The alliance, named the Singapore Alliance for Responsible Drinking, plans to help nip problem drinking in the bud by training bar staff to recognise signs so they can handle the situation appropriately.