Alcoholism booms in `dry` Pakistan, as does addiction counselling

Drinkers in Pakistan risk severe punishment: 80 lashes of the whip under strict Islamic laws.

Islamabad: Despite being banned in Pakistan, alcohol is easily available across the country, prompting rising alcoholism and a growing trade in clinics trying to treat middle-class patients.

Pakistan has been dry for much longer- since 1977- and drinkers risk severe punishment: 80 lashes of the whip under strict Islamic laws, the Guardian reports.

But the law is ignored, as alcohol is widely available in the country, and for those who go too far, addiction clinics offering help are quietly flourishing.

The last time a Pakistani drinker received 80 lashes was under the Islamist dictator Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, however the culture has changed these days. Former president Pervez Musharraf made little secret of his fondness for a drink; neither does his successor, Asif Ali Zardari, the report said.

Waiters serve scotch on the sidelines of society weddings and corporate functions, and ministers drink openly at functions but hide their glasses when photographers come around, it added.

According to the report, demand for alcoholism counselling is so brisk in Pakistan that many clinics now take out prominent newspaper ads, some depicting a depressed man nursing a glass of scotch- a rare public nod towards a thinly veiled drinking culture.

"There`s plenty of business," said Dr Sadaqat Ali, a leading addiction counsellor whose chain of clinics treated 500 alcoholics this year.

He counted bureaucrats, politicians, army generals and even the families of mullahs among his clients. "That`s our target market. We call it the golden triangle: rich, educated and influential," he said.

Dr Ali estimates that ten million Pakistanis drink alcohol, one million of whom have a problem. "With our culture of hospitality, it`s hard to say ``no``," he said.

Treatment is expensive by local standards, typically costing upwards of 85 pounds a night, and some clinics have even engaged in "forceful" interventions, drugging alcoholics at the instigation of desperate relatives to kickstart the cure.

The other option is Alcoholics Anonymous, which has at least one group in Karachi. Unlike the clinics it is hard to find: no ads, no phone numbers, just a simple web page.

"Most people find it through word of mouth," said a former member, adding that it has operated for more than 15 years.

Some years ago, a handful of parliamentarians had argued for a reversal of the alcohol law, but with the rise of the Taliban such talk receded.

It is noteworthy that in 2007, a suicide bomber set off his device outside a beer shop in the Islamabad Marriott Hotel.