Hanoi, Vietnam – February 14, 2018
The Tet Holiday is the Lunar New Year for the Vietnamese People. Tết Nguyên Đán is the Sino-Vietnamese name meaning, “Feast of the First Morning of The First Day”, it is the celebrations based on the lunar calendar signifying the first day of spring. Usually celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, the Vietnamese celebrate with family, food and in recent years too much alcohol. The alcohol that accompanies the celebration of Tet has become a major concern for the Minister of Health, Nguyen Thi Kim Tien in 2018. So much so that warnings about alcohol poisoning were started in late December 2017, almost 2 months before the first day of Tet, February 16, 2018.
Vietnam has an established growing legal alcohol industry with regulatory agencies that are trying to keep pace. Over 300 major alcohol facilities with 300 smaller facilities produce as estimated 610 million liters of alcohol each year. The legal industry and the rise of binge drinking among the population is concerning to the Health Minister. During the Tet Holiday, the counterfeit alcohol industry becomes a focus of concern.
Standing out among the other countries of South East Asia, The Vietnamese Ministry of Health, is aware and tracks the annual rise of alcohol poisoning throughout the Country. In the months leading up to the Tet Holiday, Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien has been quick to point out the alarming statistics and has been a voice calling for controls.
At one news conference Minister Tien was quoted, “Alcohol poisoning cases only accounted for 1-2% of the annual food poisoning cases but the fatalities account for 7%. There was a case where several members of a family died after a party,” Alcohol poisoning is a disease of binge drinking as well as fake alcohol made with methanol.
The rise in legal alcohol use in Vietnam is raising alarms among the Vietnamese Medical Community. Dr Trần Quốc Bảo from the General Department of Preventive Medicine, related that Vietnamese citizens consumed 3.4 billion liters of beer and 270 million liters of distilled liquor and wines in the last year, far above the legal production of 610 Million liters.
Officials are worried about the consumption rate, but also the fake alcohol being consumed which contains methanol, a deadly industrial form of alcohol. The Department of Preventative Medicine calculates that 44.2 of drinkers in Vietnam are binge drinkers consuming alcohol at levels that are dangerous to their health. As the Tet Holiday approach officials are worried about the increases they will see during the season.
Alcohol Poisoning patients are admitted daily at the Poison Control Center (PCC) of Bach Mai Hospital. Nguyễn Trung Nguyên, Director of the PCC says that the rate is 2-3 times higher during the holiday. Director Nguyen and the Doctors at PCC are bracing for the worst from the rise in alcohol poisoning attributed to counterfeit alcohol.
A month before the Holiday even began, the PCC received a 47-year-old male patient with a Methanol Alcohol level of 300mg/100ml which approaches the deadly threshold for consumable ethanol alcohol. The patient could not be revived and died. The Ministry of Heath estimated that during the Tet Holiday of 2017 hospitals treated over 2,000 cases of alcohol poisoning and anticipate more in 2018.
Vietnam officials are aware of the challenge they face trying to curb the Nation’s thirst for liquor, beer and wine, and understand they are losing the battle against fake alcohol produced with deadly methanol. Liquor consumption in Vietnam is soaring, with even the doctors noting that patients they are treating with alcohol poisoning are younger and younger. Nguyễn Phương Nam, a World Health Organization Representative in Vietnam notes that Vietnam currently ranks 2nd in Southeast Asia, and 29th in the world in per person alcohol consumption.
Throughout the year, the Vietnam Anti-Counterfeiting Fund (VACF) in conjunction with police and other enforcement agencies do their best to stem the tide of bootleg booze in Vietnam, they realize it is an uphill battle. Pham Ngoc Hung, Vice Chairman of the VACF, told the Lao Dong Newspaper,” there were many tricks used to make counterfeit wines look like those from famous brands. Violators could substitute poor-quality alcohol into a used bottle of wine to trick consumers, or fake the bottle, cork, labelling and even certification stamps to sell the product. ……. challenging for consumers to tell the difference between fake and real products at a glance and they could easily be cheated.”
Since October 2017 over 6,000 bottles of bootleg booze made to look like well-known brands from Germany, Australia, Scotland and the US have been seized. It is not even a dent in the volume of methanol laden spurious liquor that is in Vietnam on any given day.
Ahead of the curve in trying to control spurious liquor produced with methanol, Nguyen Hung Long has proposed to the Ministry of Industry and Trade to use methylene blue indicator to differentiate methanol from other substances. It might seem like a small regulatory change, but keep in mind it is a change that the EU, USA, Australia, Africa and the rest of Asia has failed to propose, pass or enforce.
Vietnam doctors and enforcement officials are aware and open about the severe problem they face from dodgy booze. They are also aware that their capabilities are overwhelmed by a counterfeit liquor industry that is well organized, well-funded and often protected from the reach of enforcement agents. As consumers continue to buy dodgy booze made with methanol we can expect that many will not be alive for the Tet of 2019 due to alcohol poisoning.
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