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Medical Musings: Beware Of Fake Alcohol In Vietnam

Vietnam drinks a lot of alcohol. In fact, it tops the list in Southeast Asia at nearly 3 billion liters yearly. While beer is the alcoholic beverage of choice for many, spirits are also a popular option.

This active drinking culture makes for a lively nightlife, but also can occasionally lead to serious medical illnesses - mainly in the form of methanol poisoning from fake alcohol which can have deadly consequences.

The word “alcohol” as we commonly know it more specifically ethyl alcohol. Containing ethanol, this is the chemical in booze that causes people to become intoxicated. There are many other types of alcohol used in different applications as well. For example, methanol is wood alcohol, isopropyl alcohol is rubbing alcohol and ethylene glycol is antifreeze. All of these chemicals are related closely to one another, and all are potentially poisonous if ingested. In fact, ethylene glycol ingestion is a very common way of attempting suicide in the West.

After having a drink of ethanol, some of it is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. It then slows down the activity in your brain, causing the feeling we refer to as “drunk.”

Over time, the body breaks down ethanol into different chemicals and, eventually, into an acid. These byproducts take time to be cleared from the body and are the cause of hangovers.

Methanol is different. Like ethanol, once broken down, it is converted into different chemicals. However, the byproducts of methanol breakdown cause damage to the body. One of the products of methanol breakdown is formic acid, and it only takes a small amount of it to acidify the body and cause organ failure.

Methanol poisoning is probably the most common health risk associated with the intake of counterfeit alcohol as it can cause blindness, kidney failure and seizures.

Those patients who develop serious complications from methanol poisoning rarely fully recover and many die from their illness.

With all of this said, it is important to keep everything in perspective: plain old pure booze causes way more deaths every year than the tainted stuff does. Just recently, a new report was released reminding us that ethanol leads to more deaths per capita than cigarettes, methamphetamine, opiates and even heroin.

Here in Vietnam, alcohol is heavily taxed, making the price of imported alcohol very high for bars and restaurants. Shady bar owners can save a lot of Dong by simply filling up real bottles with counterfeit alcohol (you can occasionally find people selling used liquor bottles on the street specifically for this purpose). The alcohol put back in the bottles is likely a mixture of ethanol and methanol, or one of any number of other chemicals.

To add insult to injury, only a very small amount of alcohol in Vietnam is regulated appropriately, inspected, or tested rigorously. There have been reports of breweries or distilleries producing thousands of bottles of counterfeit liquor and distributing them.

So what’s a person to do? If you’re serious about your mixed drinks, only imbibe at establishments that you are familiar with, and avoid offerings that have suspiciously low prices. Remember, if it’s too good to be true, it’s probably is. If you do buy liquor, buy from reputable sources, and when the bottle is empty, damage it so it can’t be used again.

Above all else, use common sense and you’ll be able to drink with the best of them.

Dr. Ostrander is a board-certified American family doctor, practicing at Columbia Asia Saigon International Clinic. For appointments, please contact the clinic at 08 3823 8888, or e-mail customercare.sg@columbiaasia.com.

[Photo via Hannah Swithinbank]

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