S'pore teen hospitalised for alcohol poisoning regrets binge drinking

File photo illustrating binge drinking problem among Singapore youth.
PHOTO: S'pore teen hospitalised for alcohol poisoning regrets binge drinking

SINGAPORE - He started drinking even before he turned 18, usually about twice a month with his friends.

And he would binge drink, often to the point of getting sick and throwing up.

But the student's cavalier attitude towards alcohol caught up with him last year.

Jonathan (not his real name) ended up in hospital for two days for alcohol poisoning.

He also had to lie to his parents as they did not know that he had been drinking alcohol.

Jonathan, who said that he has learnt his lesson, is just one of many young people here who binge drink.

Many of them can be seen around the clubbing areas of Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay, often drinking in public before hitting the nightspots.

Recalling his brush with alcohol poisoning, Jonathan, now 20, said he and five friends had planned an overnight fishing session at Punggol Jetty.

They took along alcohol so they could play drinking games to pass the time. But what was meant to be an enjoyable night out with friends turned into a nightmare for him.

In two hours that night, he drank about three-quarters of a litre bottle of vodka that he had brought from home.

"At one point, I felt extremely nauseous and leant onto my friend for support. He thought it was a joke, so he pushed me and I hit my head on the ground," Jonathan said.

He blacked out and the next thing he knew was that he was in an ambulance.

His friends told him later that he had a seizure and was having fits for about 10 seconds.

Jonathan was warded for two days.

More cautious

He did not want The New Paper to speak to his parents as they still do not know what happened that weekend.

Worried that they would be upset with him for drinking, he called them from hospital that weekend and lied about being bitten by a poisonous fish.

But he assured them that it was not serious and that they need not visit him.

"Luckily, they accepted my story and did not visit me," he said.

More cautious

"Since that incident, I have been a lot more cautious with alcohol. I'm also watchful over my friends as I don't want them to go through what I did."

His friend, Ben, backed Jonathan's claims. He said: "Jonathan is usually the most sober one in the group and controls us when we get too high."

Dr Clarence Yeo, a general practitioner at Killiney Family & Wellness Clinic, said regular drinkers have a greater tolerance for alcohol and can still function.

"But if you drink too much in a short time, alcohol has been known to poison the body and can be deadly," he added.

"It can also affect the gag reflex, which helps to prevent choking. One may die from choking on his or her own vomit."

It can also lead to long-term effects like brain and kidney damage and conditions like peptic ulcer and stomach cancer.

Situation improves after alcohol ban

Situation improves after alcohol ban

At 3am on a recent Saturday, The New Paper saw a young woman slumped at Jiak Kim Bridge, close to Zouk.

A fight had broken out at the nightclub's carpark. So nobody paid any attention to the woman, who was so drunk she could hardly respond to her male companion.

He eventually carried her and got her into a taxi. Such scenes used to be played out at Robertson Bridge and Jiak Kim Bridge on most nights. They were popular spots for young people to hang out and drink their store-bought alcohol before going clubbing.

But after complaints by residents and Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah, who has pushed for no-alcohol zones at her constituency (which includes the Robertson Quay area), there has been an increased police presence to curtail public drinking there.

However, residents in the upscale condominiums that dot the area told TNP that they are seeing fewer partygoers near their homes, and that this could be the result of the alcohol ban in the area.

A male resident in the area who wanted to remain anonymous told TNP: "The situation has improved and we don't see as many drunk young people as we used to near our home.

"But sometimes, there are some very young-looking people who drink and pass out, and I wonder to myself - why doesn't theĀ  Government raise the drinking age limit?"

Shorter hours

Singapore's legal drinking age is 18, compared to 21 in countries like the US. Ms Shirley Wong, general manager of Riverview Hotel, which has rooms overlooking the Singapore River, is still unhappy about the public drinking problem.

She said: "The situation has not improved. On Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, large groups of young people still swamp the pedestrian path behind Riverview Hotel. A cleaner clears the mess left by them on the mornings after these revelries."

Over at Clarke Quay at 3am, empty bottles and cans of booze - some still inside plastic bags from the nearby convenience stores - line Read Bridge, which links the quay to Riverside Point. The bridge was filled with young people, including tourists and expatriates, drinking alcohol despite the late hour.

Shorter hours

Since Oct 1 last year, liquor licensing hours have been shortened in Clarke Quay to curb drunken behaviour in the area. No alcohol can be sold after 3am on Sundays and weekdays, and after 4am on Saturdays and eve of public holidays.

But there's nothing to stop drinkers from buying their booze earlier if convenience stores are banned from selling alcohol beyond midnight.

However, the manager at a restaurant at Clarke Quay, who declined to be named, said things at the area were quieter because "there are a lot of police patrolling and the area's security guards also make sure people don't pass out in public".

True enough, TNP saw one young man passed out near the taxi stand. But he was roused by three security guards and sent on his way.

No to raising drinking age; Yes to education

No to raising drinking age; Yes to education

There is no need to raise the legal drinking age to 21, as in the US.

When contacted, the chairman for the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Culture, Community and Youth, Mr Baey Yam Keng, said: "A vast majority of our youth drink responsibly, so I wouldn't want to penalise everyone just because of the irresponsible few," said Mr Baey, a Member of Parliament (MP) for Tampines GRC.

Recently, The Health Promotion Board (HPB) said it was studying New York's recent move to raise the minimum age for cigarette purchase from 18 to 21.

HPB also said last month that it was monitoring Australia's efforts to impose plain packaging for cigarettes, among other measures, to reduce the number of smokers here.

Asked if HPB's studies could be applied to drinkers, Mr Baey said: "To me, smoking is not good for your health but social drinking, in moderate doses, is fine."

Deputy chairman for the Culture, Community and Youth GPC, Mr David Ong, said he supports "any measures that promote the well-being of our youth, especially alcohol addiction".

Raising the legal drinking age may be the right step but this could also be merely "a quick fix to the problem", added the Jurong GRC MP.

"More focus should be placed on raising the awareness of responsible drinking and making sound choices."

One of those choices is making young people realise the dangers behind binge drinking, which is defined by the Health Ministry as having six or more drinks on a single occasion over a short period of time, experts told The New Paper.

Dr Munidasa Winslow, an addictions specialist at Promises - a mental health and addictions consulting service - said: "Most people develop drinking problems over time but the younger ones I've encountered also abuse alcohol, meaning they binge drink or drink a lot at one time."

Psychologist Daniel Koh of Insights Mind Centre agreed, saying that young people tend to turn to alcohol to cope with stress or as a way to feel mature.

But some don't know when to stop. And this can be dangerous.



Dr Winslow has seen more young people going to him for alcohol addiction: "I had one young patient who was at the beach when he was drunk.

"He fell into the water but his body could not react, so he could not swim. Luckily, someone saved him, but he still had to be sent to the hospital because there was too much water in his lungs."

However, Dr Winslow and Mr Koh are not in favour of raising the legal drinking age. Said Dr Winslow: "A lot of 18-year-old boys are serving national service, so the idea that you are allowed to die for your country but not drink doesn't make sense."

Education, they said, remains the best way to combat this problem.

"Improve their sense of self-restraint through awareness and education. This will lead to a positive mindset and ultimately, self-control," said Mr Koh.

TNP asked a group of young men drinking at Read Bridge, near Clarke Quay, if raising the age limit was a good idea. A 19-year-old NSF, who wanted to be known only as James, said: "I'm sure people will find ways of getting alcohol if such a rule comes into law.

"But not everyone goes overboard. The majority of us are smart enough to go drinking with good friends. At least there is safety in numbers."

A Clarke Quay club bouncer, who declined to be named, said raising the age limit "would hurt business".

But a club manager felt otherwise, saying: "Changing the policy would mean less trouble generally. Besides, it is the older drinkers who spend more on drinks."

In 2012, a study by the Institute of Mental Health's (IMH) research division said those aged 18 to 34 were twice as likely to drink excessively and binge drink. One per cent of Singaporeans aged between 18 and 29 drink regularly. Out of that number, 16 per cent binge drink.

More youngsters were doing it because of the availability and social acceptance of alcohol, more disposable income and a partying culture, the report added.

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