Al­co­hol mis­use on the in­crease

Drinkers seek help; re­lated ill­nesses have steadily risen, doc­tors re­port

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By WANG QINGYUN wangqingyun@ chi­

More peo­ple in China are seek­ing med­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal help for al­co­holism, ac­cord­ing to doc­tors and pa­tients in Bei­jing.

The num­ber of drinkers has steadily in­creased in re­cent decades, along with re­ports of al­co­hol-re­lated ill­nesses at hos­pi­tals na­tion­wide.

A study by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2011 found 6.9 per­cent of Chi­nese men aged 15 or above had al­co­hol use dis­or­ders, such as reg­u­lar abuse or de­pen­dency, while for women the per­cent­age was 0.22.

And­ing Hos­pi­tal, a men­tal health fa­cil­ity in Bei­jing, opened an al­co­hol de­pen­dence ward in 1995. That year it re­ceived less than 30 pa­tients, ac­cord­ing to doc­tor Sheng Lixia.

“In 2009, a year be­fore the ward was closed, we had more than 300 pa­tients,” she said. “The num­ber that come to the hos­pi­tal for al­co­hol-re­lated ill­ness and treat­ment is higher now.”

Sun Hongqiang, di­rec­tor of the al­co­hol de­pen­dence ward at Hui­long­guan Hos­pi­tal, shared sim­i­lar views.

“In 2007, the an­nual in­take was 60. That has since risen to more than 200 pa­tients,” he said.

Ex­perts see the steady growth in the num­ber of peo­ple seek­ing treat­ment and coun­sel­ing as a sign that more peo­ple in China are now aware of the ill ef­fects of al­co­hol.

Sheng, how­ever, ar­gued that China’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and im­prov­ing life­styles have also been a ma­jor trig­ger for the rise in al­co­holism.

“Most of my pa­tients are male, aged in their 50s or 60s,” she said. “They had lim­ited ac­cess to al­co­hol be­fore the 1980s, as they could pur­chase such bev­er­ages only with tick­ets, and hence had less chance of be­com­ing al­co­holic.”

The mar­ket for al­co­hol opened up in the 1980s and “most of the peo­ple who had been drink­ing small quan­ti­ties ended up as de­pen­dent over the next decade”, Sheng said.

Along with hos­pi­tals, there has also been an in­crease in peo­ple turn­ing to sup­port groups such as Al­co­holics Anony­mous.

Doc­tors from And­ing Hos­pi­tal and the Sixth Hos­pi­tal of Pek­ing Univer­sity set up the first Chi­nese branch of the AA in Bei­jing in 2000. Start­ing with just 10 mem­bers, the sup­port group, fa­mous for its 12-step pro­gram, now has more than 100, in­clud­ing Chi­nese and for­eign­ers.

“When we were young, drink­ing was a lux­ury. Now it’s not un­com­mon to see peo­ple drink­ing just to get drunk,” said an AA mem­ber in his 60s on con­di­tion of anonymity. She said he has been sober since 1999.

Sheng said many pa­tients com­plained of work or life pres­sures.

“Most who come to our clinic also ex­hibit other psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders, such as de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety,” she said, while adding that Chi­nese drink­ing eti­quette, such as teas­ing peo­ple to drink, are also to blame for the grow­ing num­ber of al­co­holics.

“Pa­tients need an en­vi­ron­ment that is con­ducive for a com­plete re­cov­ery,” she said. “The fact is many of us have and are still urg­ing oth­ers to drink dur­ing a din­ner.”

Sun at Hui­long­guan Hos­pi­tal agreed and added, “In China, be­ing able to drink is con­sid­ered com­pet­i­tive as it helps clinch busi­ness deals at the din­ner ta­ble.”

This, be­sides be­ing a cul­tural shock, also poses a chal­lenge for for­eign­ers in China, ac­cord­ing to a Bei­jing AA mem­ber from the United States.

“If you go to a busi­ness din­ner, ev­ery­one wants to see for­eign­ers drink. They keep say­ing gan­bei, gan­bei,” the 35-year-old said, re­fer­ring to the Chi­nese term for bot­toms up. “They love to have for­eign­ers drink. I think they do it be­cause they want to be friendly, and they think for­eign­ers love to drink.”

The lib­eral and even en­cour­ag­ing at­ti­tude to­ward drink­ing has also af­fected chil­dren, said a 34-year-old Chi­nese woman at Bei­jing AA.

She said she started drink­ing at 17 and en­joyed a rep­u­ta­tion among her friends for her tol­er­ance. Al­co­holism set in when she be­gan to work abroad and used al­co­hol to cope with home­sick­ness and work pres­sure.

“I guess the prob­lem might go back to my early years,” she said. “Peo­ple in my fam­ily can drink a lot, and they didn’t pre­vent me from drink­ing even when I was a child.”

Sheng said at fam­ily din­ners in China it is com­mon to see adults dip a chop­stick in wine and then let the chil­dren taste it for fun.

“But the risk is that the child could grow up and think that drink­ing is noth­ing se­ri­ous,” she said, ex­plain­ing that China has no age ban on al­co­hol con­sump­tion.

“It’s com­mon for young peo­ple to drink beer at par­ties or din­ner, and easy for them to pur­chase al­co­hol from any store or restau­rant,” she said.

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