Dangers of Alcohol and Drug Abuse for Foreigners in the Philippines

NOTE:  This chapter is heading into our book.  If you’ve got anything to add, PLEASE leave a comment – if it’s appropriate, I will include it in the next edition.


If you happen to be to be an alcoholic or drug addict, you just might find the Philippines to be both your personal little Heaven AND private little Hell –  Heaven because of the low cost of booze and drugs and Hell because there is little in place here to regulate an addict’s daily use.   One of the reasons that we are always droning on about how important it is for expats anywhere to have something to do (a passion and purpose) is partly due to the topic at hand.  In my time here, I have seen the results of addicts here whiling away their empty days with either alcohol, drugs or both.  Just from its very nature, the end result isn’t pretty, bringing about economic ruin, physical decline, spiritual vacancy and finally – after the final loss of dignity – either a realization that things have to change or they are going to continue downhill to the very end.  Don’t get me wrong:  I am not saying this not out of doom and gloom or from a perspective of teetotalling higher ground but out of simple experience:  If you are an active alcoholic or drug addict in the Philippines I believe that your run will typically be much shorter and painful than what one might experience in the West. 

That said, let’s look at some of the reasons for which I am forwarding my hypothesis:

Cheap Booze
The cost of locally produced alcoholic beverages in the Philippines is remarkably low compared to the majority of Western nations with beers costing around 50 cents to a dollar and liters of harder alcohol (Tanduary and Emperador) only costing about three dollars (or less). And if you are truly on a budget, you can pick up homemade tuba (coconut wine) for only a fraction of that. Conversely, Western liquors such as Hennessey, Johnnie Walker, Seagrams and the like are more expensive in the Philippines due to tariffs and shipping costs.  These finer liquors are usually reserved for casual drinkers, however.  Unless a drunk is filthy rich, you usually won’t see him purchasing cases of Johnnie Walker Black Label.  Instead, gents who are serious about their drinking in the Philippines will usually gravitate towards cheap high-test Red Horse beer (jokingly referred to as “Cheval Rouge”) or Tanduay rum.

Price-wise, drugs are fairly inexpensive in the Philippines. (The other costs of their use, however, might be well beyond the budget of the average expatriate.) Marijuana is ridiculously cheap and plentiful here but reports as to its poor quality (‘schwag weed’) are somewhat common.  Methamphetamine (‘shabu’) is also less expensive than it is in the Wests and has long been an extremely serious health issue here in the Republic.  Other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and ecstasy are less common outside of urban areas and correspondingly more expensive, but synthetic opioids like Nubain are a popular drug to inject oneself with here.  So, with those options, most addicts will eventually shift over to the most common available drug, shabu, which is an absolute nightmare and pretty much the quickest and ugliest descent into chemically-induced insanity one can imagine. 


Distance from Family and Friends
Contributing to low cost of drugs and alcohol as a danger to the addict expat is the sudden absence of external controls such as family and friends that the isolated expatriate experiences while in the Philippines. Without the usual social checks and balances that are conferred through these relationships, an active addict here quickly loses all semblance of objectivity – bereft of a compassionate “eternal lens” to provide him with feedback on where he is at, the addiction gains yet another advantageous foothold over the addict and the progression from good to bad to ugly continues along on its most merry way.

Lack of Rehabilitation
Rehabilitation and detoxification centers do exist in the Philippines, but they are expensive (and usually out of the reach of most Filipinos) and possessed of long waiting lists. Keep in mind that drug addicts and alcoholics are also a long way from their Western health insurance policies to pay for any type of local rehab program even if it was covered. Similarly, there are not emergency services teams in most areas of the Philippines that have the resources to deal with addicts in serious, life-threatening crisis. Instead of getting care as they would in the West, they are likely to suffer the ongoing consequences of the dangerous street life here up to and including, death.

meth pipe

Drug Laws  
Drug laws are extremely strict in the Philippines, creating an even greater danger to any visiting foreigner. Just the simple cultivation of marijuana here (no matter how little) can result in a life sentence in a decrepit and miserable Philippines prison. Also keep in mind that some drug violations have “no bail” stipulations which means the charged individual could be sitting for years in a Philippine jail awaiting trial.   Philippine police are often on the lookout for drug offenders and a Westerner with an addiction sticks out like a sore thumb and is a remarkably easy target.  Philippine prisons are rough and once in, your chances of getting out are rather slim.  If you’ve ever seen the television show, “Locked Up Abroad,” you’ll understand what we are saying.

Here’s a link to a Philippines episode of Locked Up that you might find interesting:

No drunk driving enforcement
Drunk driving laws exist all across the Philippines, but the actual enforcement of them is pretty abysmal. In the three-plus decades that our book’s authors have only seen one dedicated DUI checkpoint, and that was in the National Capital Region. Smaller municipalities can’t claim the same: The city of Dumaguete on Negros Oriental, for example, just received a dozen breathalyzers in October of 2015 – they proudly posted them up on their Facebook page but they have yet to be put into use.  Foreigners are very aware of this soon after arriving in the Philippines, and without that external control, a number of them drive after drinking – sometimes with terrible consequences.

Loneliness and Isolation
Exacerbating the negative consequences of lack of support systems such as family and friends and access to rehabilitative medical care is the actual loneliness that an expatriate feels in a foreign nation. Not knowing the language, limited socialization (expats tend to be rugged individualist and rather reserved) and simply our appearance (either abnormally black or white and uniquely “foreign” as compared to the typical Filipino) makes one pretty much feel like an outsider. Even in today’s world of digital connectiveness via Skype and Google Voice, such loneliness can lead to depression which is fueled in turn by lack of adequate medical care (mental health treatment).  And since so many addicts are already dealing with organic or situational mental health challenges, the loneliness and isolation of constantly feeling like a stranger in a strange land can often lead to an increase in substance abuse.

The intent of this blog post is not to lecture the prospective (or present) expat on how evil drugs and alcohol are. Instead, it should simply be seen as a warning as to having such issues can have more dire consequences in the Philippines than in the West.  Since nearly every person around the world has had to personally deal with addiction issues among families and friends, most people know that it is a word wide and equal opportunity oppressor.  Given the unique conditions of living so far away from one’s native home brings a whole set of new issues to the equation, greatly exacerbating (in this author’s view) the dangers of drug and alcohol addiction among foreigners living in the Philippines. 

red horse


    1. The social-bond approach has been around for a little white, and it REALLY turned the field of addiction recovery on it’s head. Previously, the model had been the TC/therapeutic community, which kept addicts basically locked away from family and friends and depended more on “white knuckling” it. A lot of people still working in addictions still abide solely by the TC/12-Step model and don’t really want to change, which is ironic considering the career path they are in. Thanks, Sir Mario!

  1. absolutly true mr. Ned and well said. its almost the opposite for me here in the PI because i have family and a relationship i care about. but at home although on american soil i have none of the checks and ballances. Overdrinking is the norm there and so many die young. Your writting prompted my brain to think of why ,and its just as you warned about the pi. I have a life here and a purpose and so im doing as you reccomended and its a protection.
    Lucky me im not an addict. if i drink its out of boredom or somthing. so as long as ive got somthing to do im fine without alchohol. thanks again

  2. Hi Ned

    Is the must a typo?

    (The other costs of their use, however, must might be well beyond the budget of the average expatriate.)


  3. After reading Ned’s well written article and watching the video Mario linked from TED by Johann, I believe if and I stress if, a loving compassionate purposeful relationship with a Filipino and her family may well help lead to a more balanced life. Avoiding the alone factor. Thanks to all taking the time to express these ideas.

  4. Sadly the Philippines is an alcoholics wet dream. Hot climate and booze not good for health, due to dehydration, also alcohol is a depressant. So sad to see wonderful human beings turn into anti social sad people.
    I’m not against alcohol, its nice to have a beer or a glass of wine with food.

    So important that you have something to occupy your spare time…like keeping fit, writing a book, starting a You Tube channel… hell even chasing young ladies…mind you that is another mine field best not done…jealous boy friends, husbands or upset ex-girlfriends

  5. Luckily all my drugs of choice and addiction are legal, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, though smoking in public is now illegal in Dumaguete.
    Yet another excuse to give up smoking and after a night on the turps drinking Tanduay Rhum and Coke followed by the worst hang over I have ever had I think I will stick to San Miguel Light from now on.
    Can you get a decent cup of coffee in Dumaguete and I’m not talking about that crap Starbucks serves up and calls coffee, a nice flat white or Cappuccino with a bacon and egg roll after a stroll along the boulevard in the morning would be the ideal start to my day when I retire.

    1. Best coffee in Dumaguete IMHO is actually MacDonalds. I don’t like Bo’s and am not a fan of Starbucks. And yes, you are not supposed to smoke around Dumaguete, but I have never seen that law enforced. Thanks for commenting, Martin!

  6. great article Ned, addiction does kill and usually slowly and takes the addict through all the floors of hell.
    i was wondering if there are many recovery programs ( AA, NA, etc. ) in the Philippines?

    Sometimes being around other addicts is helpful as far as not feeling like you are the only one with a problem with addiction. I strongly believe that the more isolated addiction makes a person, the chances of recovery are slim.

    thanks for listening.

  7. I have an American friend here manila and is suffering from alcohol abuse. I’m afraid that something bad might happen to him as he lives alone. I’ve talked to him to go back to the U.S. because if he get sick, hospitalization is expensive. I can’t be always there as I have a family of my own. I’m just concerned. How to deal with this?

    1. That’s a real tough one. Unfortunately, there is little to nothing you can do other then gently encourage him to get help. Substance abuse issues and mental heath woes usually go hand in hand, and there is little in the way of infrastructure in the Philippines to deal with it. We are presently watching a mentally ill expat go downhill fast here around Dumaguete – he has no money, has lost about 50 pounds (emaciated) and is too ill to help himself. Sorry to hear about his issue and good luck to you both!

  8. Great post. Stop apologizing. I never had a problem with alcohol. Until the Philippines. I can do 24 beers in a night, without getting drunk and stupid. Something different here. The heat? Maybe. Also, being in a strange land. It is surreal. Being sober here, you already feel like you are drunk. lol

    One point you missed. A lot of alcohol here is pirated, made with deadly chemicals, and watered down with other chemicals that will give you a buzz, but will hurt you more than alcohol. That “formaldehyde beer” myth the old soldiers tell you about is no myth. I have drank some beer here that did not get me drunk, but made me sick. Put me in the toilet with black poop for a month (internal bleeding).

    If you are going to live in such a dirty and dangerous country, you should at least take care of your health! Pineapple juice is cheaper than San mig!

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