Give Me Shelter

Hong Kong’s fast-paced lifestyle can easily tip into a dark side of substance abuse and addiction, writes Pedro Chan

When Rachel moved from New York to Hong Kong back in 2015 she thought she’d be simply swapping one international financial center for another. The most important thing was that she’d be leaving her “enablers” behind.

“My thinking was the work would be the same, and be what I wanted to do, and the pace of life would be the same but the bad habits, and people, would be left behind,” she says.

Things didn’t quite work out that way.

Rachel – not her real name – soon found Asia’s World City offered the same temptations – and traps – that she could find back home and soon the chemicals came into play, from alcohol, to cocaine and then on to the tablets that helped her grab a necessary few hours of sleep.

Hong Kong has a well-earned reputation as a fast-paced city where people push life to its limits and Rachel’s story is an all-too familiar one. “Functional addiction” in the workplace affects every sector of Hong Kong’s economy, say healthcare specialists working in the field. And work is often the last piece of an addict’s life to fall apart.

The world was recently given a shocking and gruesome lesson in just how low this kind of lifestyle can go with the double-murder trial of Rurik Jutting. The British banker’s courtroom revelations of his extreme chemical abuse captured headlines, as did his claims that such behavior – among his peers in the finance industry – was commonplace.

On a far less sensational level, an expatriate lifestyle in Hong Kong can prove a particularly intoxicating cocktail. Expats in Hong Kong are the best paid in the world, according to an HSBC survey released last month, with an average salary of US$178,706 that’s US$72,000 above the global average. More than a quarter say they’re pulling in at least 50 percent more within two years of relocating here.

Hong Kong’s compact layout means temptation is never more than a few minutes away, while an army of low-cost babysitters makes it even easier to stay out just that bit too long just that bit too often. And if the warning signals don’t flash red in the official statistics, that’s because the problem gets lost in the crowd. Take alcohol: at around 2.8 liters of pure ethanol equivalent per year for every person over 15 years of age, Hong Kong is positively dry compared with America’s 9.8 liters or Britain’s 11.3. A significant portion of the local population is either teetotal or drinks very rarely and very little.

A senior member of the teaching staff at one of Hong Kong's leading international schools said he had been shocked at the level of alcohol consumption since coming to the city to take on the role.

“The level of drinking, the level of tolerance I see among parents has simply amazed me. It's off the scale,” he said. “And that has a clear impact on the children. Many expat children are given more freedom than they would have in their countries of origin, often with more money, and more opportunities to experiment with substances.”

Such behavior can impact on society as a whole and while figures on any effect addictions have on the Hong Kong economy are hard to come by, there have been a number of studies in the United States – and they make for some sobering reading.

America’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse has estimated that alcohol abuse costs the U.S. economy around US$249 billion a year, while drug abuse piles on a further US$193 billion. That’s more than Iran’s annual gross domestic product.

Those figures come as little surprise to Dr Seamus MacAuley, head counsellor at The Cabin outpatient addictions treatment center. MacAuley began focusing on treatment of addictions after retiring from the UK Royal Air Force in 2006. Since moving to The Cabin two and a half years ago, he has seen evidence of trends of abuse here that are being well documented in other parts of the world.

“In the United States in particular there are interesting figures on how much alcohol and chemical abuse affects the bottom line,” he says. “It’s well documented in mature western countries and I’m sure if you did the research in various other countries the figures would also be substantial. Without doubt it is going to be affecting the bottom line in Hong Kong.”

MacAuley believes the nature of the Hong Kong office environment has a lot to do with the problem, in terms of both how employers treat and deal with staff, and in terms of how honest staff are when facing problems.

“I see a lot of people who are high-functioning addicts who maintain and hold down jobs,” says MacAuley. “And it is usually the job that’s the last thing to go. Most people will tend to hang on to their job. As far as I can see HR [human resources] have no respect for their employees so it’s a little bit like the Wild West. There’s also a lot of fear about what HR might find out if you take time off to deal with a problem.

“The culture is one of permissive abuse – certainly of alcohol. You’ll find that cocaine just happens to be the next one, that’s the next chemical. That’s part and parcel of the culture, the high-stress, high-performance culture.”

One of the problems Rachel highlighted when discussing how she and fellow co-workers dealt with the after-effects of a long night was the availability of over-the-counter drugs such as benzodiazepines for sleeping and/or to “take the edge off” any anxiety attacks.

Again, while reliable data on the use of highly addictive “benzos” and their ilk in Hong Kong are hard to come by, in the U.S. they are reportedly involved in more than 30 percent of all deaths by overdose when combined with other substances.

“The availability of prescriptions drugs over the counter is a problem here as it is in the United States, something that has been well publicized,” explains Tim Lewis of the Addiction Friend counselling service. “Plus the fact that it is more socially acceptable to use prescription drugs than it is to use illicit drugs, and the way prescription drugs are obtained has less of the criminal element to the way it is done. For want of a better word, it’s more normal people who are attracted to these substances. People are more comfortable using prescription medication than they are using drugs where they are not sure of the origin.” 

In terms of first identifying that there is a problem, MacAuley says, when it comes to alcohol, more than five drinks five times a month is “problematic drinking.”

“The common refrain is ‘But that’s normal,’” he says. “But you can top up with one or two drinks a day, and on it goes. There’s a blind eye to the nature of this going on as long as performance targets are met. It’s noticed when they start to unravel professionally and by that time they have already unraveled when it comes to their relationships and their private lives.”

The simple advice is that if you feel there’s a problem, seek help, and if you are worried about someone, suggest they do the same.

“Sometimes the pressure comes from the family,” says MacAuley. “They come to us and they want to know how to deal with it. But you have to play hardball. People paper over the cracks for years, so the dysfunctional behavior around the consumption of chemicals hasn’t been challenged. But the change can only come when you say ‘This is not acceptable.’ To say ‘It’s just Hong Kong life’ is a pretty poor excuse.”