x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hospitals see the results of cheap alcohol

With whisky available at as little as Dh5 a bottle, a hospital in RAK say they treat an average of eight patients a month for alcohol poisoning.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Imported alcohol is cheap and easily available in RAK. The consequences, medical workers say, are obvious. "Every two or three months a group of people come fighting together with cut wounds or trauma. Sometimes they will say they were drinking," said Dr Sawsan Salim, who has worked at the Jazirat Clinic for five years.

Doctors at one hospital in RAK said they treat an average of eight patients a month for alcohol poisoning, but add that there is no reliable measure of the rate of alcoholism in RAK. "The statistics are never accurate, because people have a shame to drink alcohol," said Dr Talaat Matar, the head of the psychiatric department at Ibrahim bin Hamad Obaidallah Hospital. "We have at least one patient [with alcohol poisoning] per week. Thirty to 50 per cent of the patients are alcohol-dependent."

"We had lots of people come who are drinking every day and we did not know how they could afford it. Most are here for alcohol poisoning or withdrawal symptoms." Doctors often discover that patients are alcoholics after they are admitted for other treatment. Patients are reluctant to seek treatment for drinking because of the stigma. If patients do request treatment, it is confidential. "We put them in the detox programme, we give them medication," said Dr Matar. "There is no rehab available in RAK. Until now we depend on our personal communication with the patient."

Labourers said alcohol was common in the camps not just as entertainment, but as a way of easing life's burdens. "Half the people are drinking, much more than before," said a 22-year-old construction worker from India, who shares a room with nine other men. "Sometimes friends come in our room and we have a party. Other people drink so I drink. We drink together for company." At the new off-licence in al Ghail, one room is stocked with Indian whisky that sells for Dh5 to Dh20 a bottle. The brands - Officer's Choice, Royal Stag, Director's Special - speak of prestige. But anyone can afford them.

Men who do not like whisky can pick up a 500ml can of eight per cent-proof beer for Dh2 or a two-litre four-pack for Dh4. An adjacent room has bottles of spirits that sell for half the price offered at city liquor outlets. The easy availability of cheap imported alcohol leaves little incentive for illicit distillers. Off-licences in RAK do not ask customers for a licence. Workers who do not live close enough to the store to walk or cycle come by bus. When the bus arrives, half go to the restaurant and half head straight to the liquor store.

"Too many labourers, too many people," said a cashier from India, who did not want to be named. "We don't know how much. Evening time, a lot of people come and buy alcohol and go to their room." Late on a Monday night, 12 men bought alcohol in 10 minutes. It was a slow night, said a Bangladeshi taxi driver waiting for a customer. "If you go here at 7 or 7.30 you will see all the scenery," said the driver, who did not want to be named. The "scenery" to which he refers is the crowd buying alcohol after work.

"Some people go every time. Thursday is maximum customers," said the driver. "In the industrial area so many people are drinkers. Every labour accommodation is like this. The customers are my friends. I asked somebody, 'Why do you drink every day?' Everybody tells me he has a low salary. He cannot save enough. He cannot sleep at night-time. He drinks. After, he sleeps like normal." Three off-licences on the coast have opened in the past three years to cater to tourists in beach resorts and residents in new developments. The store near the labour camp opened in the past month. Labourers said there is another store inside the accommodation itself.

"If you come Friday, you can see too many people," said a truck driver from Pakistan who lives in Al Ghail. "Inside my company, it's not allowed. If they want to drink, they have to go. I don't like it, I don't think it's a good idea. I would tell them to go outside [if they drank here]. It's forbidden." azacharias@thenational.ae