By Sairah Masud
SIKHS should do more to protect young people in the community from becoming addicted to alcohol, doctors, community workers and recovering alcoholics have said, as figures show a rise in the number of alcohol-related deaths among those aged over 50.
Although the holy Sikh scriptures strictly forbid the consumption of alcohol, many from the community who haven’t been baptised enjoy their drinks.
Kiran S, 34, from the West Midlands, has been sober for four years after falling pregnant with her first child. Having suffered bullying throughout her years at school, she turned to alcohol at 15 as a way to escape the problems she was facing.
“I grew up seeing my grandfather and father drinking almost on a daily basis with nobody batting an eyelid,” she told Eastern Eye. “When you go to weddings, people are literally giving away alcohol for free and if it’s not there then people frown upon it.”
Dr Kailash Chand OBE, a GP for more than 30 years, has written numerous articles on the issue having witnessed first-hand how the misuse of alcohol has destroyed lives. He said the consumption of alcohol is widely accepted as the norm among Sikhs.
“If they are happy they want to celebrate with drinks; if they are sad, they want to drown their sadness with alcohol. They don’t realise what kind of damage it does, not just to their health but to the economy and family life,” said Dr Chand.
His comments come as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed this month that the number of alcohol-attributed deaths in people older than 50 had risen by 45 per cent since 2001, with deaths among males being 55 per cent higher than females.
Alcohol addiction has been known to be a problem afflicting the Sikh community in the UK. Statistics from the 2014 British Sikh Report found that 37 per cent of Sikhs never drink alcohol; 26 per cent drink once a week and a further 19 per cent drink only on special occasions.
The Sikh population in the UK currently stands at 420,000, with half of them born in the UK and a quarter aged between 15 and 29 years. Jasvir Singh OBE, chair of the British Sikh Report and a barrister specialising in family law, said alcoholism is a problem that has been historically significant in his community.
“Sikhs are generally reluctant to accept that it’s a problem because the issue is something that they may have seen in their own families – heavy drinking may be normalised in the family and as a result, it isn’t seen as an issue; it’s simply something that happens.”
He said there have been cases of domestic violence arising from alcohol misuse and said users are often reluctant to seek help due to fear of judgement.
“The first step is there needs to be acknowledgment and a level of acceptance that there is an issue. Once that has been addressed, it then needs to be assessed by all institutions and organisations in a non-judgmental way, because as soon as you bring judgement into it, the individual you’re trying to help might not want that help,” he said.
Kiran recalled how access to alcohol was not an issue when she was growing up.
“None of my family knew; drinking alcohol was the norm, so I would sneak my dad’s drink into my bag and go to the park with a friend. We would just sit there and drink ourselves away. Other times I’d get total strangers to buy me drinks from the off-licence as I was too young to get them myself,” she said.
After family members expressed concern about Kiran’s drinking habits, she decided to make a change and became sober for the first time aged 20. But suffering domestic violence in her first relationship a year later caused her to relapse.
“It was a really dark time. I didn’t know what or who else to turn to. Nobody knew the abuse I was suffering at the hands of my ex-partner, so alcohol was a way of drowning the physical and emotional pain,” she said.
She sought help from a women’s refuge service to escape the violent relationship, but her drinking habit continued until she met her current partner, who she says showed her “how wonderful life can be sober”.
Kiran said that while in the past, gender differences in drinking habits were stark, the gap is now bridging closer as young Sikh women assimilate to the “westernised” environment they have grown up in.
“Younger people are a lot more susceptible to it now. And it’s not just the boys – girls brought up here are a lot more independent, outspoken and outgoing, so the whole idea of drinking is no longer something associated just with old men in turbans in our society,” she said.
A breakdown of the ONS figures shows in 2016 the West Midlands had the third-highest
rate of alcohol-specific deaths for males and females, with 17.6 and 8.2 deaths per 100,000 people respectively.
The East Midlands showed 14 and 6.2 deaths per 100,000 males and females respectively. Both regions are home to a large Sikh population.
Wolverhampton is home to the largest Sikh community in the West Midlands, the second-largest in the country (with 37,000 members), followed by Birmingham (11,000) and Coventry (7,000). Leicester and Derby in the East Midlands have a combined Sikh population of 11,000.
Premature mortality due to liver disease under 75 years is reported as higher in the West Midlands compared to the rest of England, with 19.2 versus 17.8 deaths per 100,000 population. This was especially marked in Sandwell, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent and Dudley, in the Midlands.
Deepa Singh is a member of the British Sikh Council and runs an organisation called Sikh Youths UK in Birmingham. As a recovering alcoholic, he now visits gurdwaras nationwide, speaking on the harmful effects of alcohol addiction.
It is “one of the biggest problems the Punjabi community faces”, he said. “I’ve had ladies who have had their kids taken off them because they’ve been drink-driving. That’s the extent of the problem we’re dealing with on a daily basis – it’s not just one or two, it is hundreds.”
Alcoholism is regarded as a “taboo issue” and that is why so many are reluctant to seek help, Singh explained.
He uses his personal experiences to encourage others to come forward with their problems.
Singh said that community leaders at religious institutions should be educated on the issue so they can offer constructive advice and help sufferers change their lives for the better.
“There’s having a say and then there’s understanding that there is an issue in the first place. I know people who have taken their kids to a gurdwara and it doesn’t deal with the welfare of the community,” he said.
“People go there with issues and the person in charge doesn’t understand because they haven’t gone through it, so they won’t give proper advice.”
Cheap prices for drinks are also a contributing factor.
Last Wednesday (15), the UK supreme court ruled that Scotland could set a minimum price for alcohol at 50p-perunit to tackle the country’s “unhealthy relationship with drink”.
In 2012, then prime minister David Cameron pledged to introduce the minimum pricing strategy to Britain, but the plan was shelved a year later in the face of fierce opposition from the drinks industry.
Dr Chand said the minimum price policy is necessary to curb the “drinking culture” that is prevalent not only within the Sikh community, but in British society as a whole.
“Politicians may have been tapping into populist sentiments of a booze-loving nation, but
they are also playing with lives.
“Once again, the government in England is bowing down to big business. Ministers now are doing what ministers in the past have done with these public health measures – kicking them into the long grass,” he said.
Dr Chand said he has seen patients coming to his practice unaware of how much alcohol they should be consuming.
“I can see they’re suffering from alcohol abuse. When I ask them how much they drink they tell me ‘only over the weekend’. And when I ask them how much they drink over one day, they’ll tell me ‘four or five pints’, which is the whole week’s quota. And then they’ll drink the same amount over the remaining days of the weekend.”
The recommended safe drinking limit for healthy men and women is up to 14 units a week, which should be spread over four-five days.
Birmingham is worse than the regional average in relation to alcohol-specific mortality in men and women, alcohol-related hospital admissions, chronic liver disease among men, alcohol-related crime and violent crime.
According to the World Health Organisation, alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature death and disability in developed countries after smoking and high blood pressure, and is related to more than 60 medical conditions.
Midlands-based charity, Aquarius said that the issue is “slipping through the net” of services and has launched a campaign, Shanti, to raise awareness and directly support the community.
Pritpal Surj, from the charity and co-lead of the Shanti project, said: “Barriers such as language, a lack of awareness and alcohol being a cultural taboo have all allowed the issue
to grow over time, and have been missed by current services in Birmingham.”
A 2002 study by the British Medical Journal found in the West Midlands, Asian men had a
standardised mortality ratio 3.79 times that of white men, with eighty per cent of the Asian
men judged to be of Sikh religion.
“Shanti will connect with communities throughout the area, bridging gaps, providing support and sharing vital information about alcohol misuse and the risks associated with it,” Surj added.
Data collected by Aquarius showed that 16 per cent of people accessing alcohol misuse services identified as Asian or Asian British, but that knowledge of the harms of alcohol misuse was not widely known in that group.
Dr Chand said gurdwaras should communicate the harmful effects of alcohol misuse and added the Punjabi music industry which “glorifies the drinking culture” should also take some responsibility.
“More than 80 per cent of Sikhs visit the gurdwara. Religious leaders need to be educated on how it is destroying families, economy and health, and relay that to the community,” Dr Chand said.
“If you look into Punjabi music, they’re always talking about drinking – music can also play a part in educating people on how communities are being destroyed.”
However, Jasvir Singh suggested that forcing the issue onto the communities without professionals could make matters worse. “It’s a health issue affecting the country as a whole. Just because the individuals are Sikhs, it doesn’t mean it’s the obligation of organisations in the Sikh community to take on that responsibility.
“Obviously, awareness is important, but it’s up to the welfare state and the NHS to work in conjunction with organisations that are willing to address those issues.
“There needs to be services, funding and resources. The more funding there is, the more it’s probable for the issue to be tackled – without that nothing can be changed,” he said.
Alcoholism costs the NHS £2.8 billion a year and is the root cause for many fatal illnesses,
including liver disease and cancer.
With the government proposing to implement further local and national budget cuts to support services including the NHS, Jasvir Singh added that specialist help to specifically meet the needs of the community appear bleak.
“Sadly, I don’t see there’s the appetite within the government to fund specific work within specific communities given the funding restrictions in place. I hope I’m wrong and that changes in the future.”
* Kiran S’ name has been changed to protect her identity.