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Alcoholics Flock to 'Wet' Towns

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Regional hubs like Nome, Alaska have become magnets for alcoholics living in outlying communities where alcohol is banned or scarce, the Associated Press reported Sept. 6.

Nome's Front Street, jails and hospitals are frequently packed with drunks, many in town from “dry” Eskimo communities. Many die of alcohol poisoning or exposure when they pass out in subzero temperatures.

“The level of alcoholism is intense,” said Greg Smith, who runs the Norton Sound Health Corp.'s outpatient substance abuse program. “The most dangerous pattern of drinking is binge drinking and it is firmly entrenched here. It's been built into the drinking culture.”

Other regional drinking hubs include Whiteclay, Neb., where just 14 people live but 4 million cans of beer are sold annually, mostly to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; Gallup, N.M., known as Drunk Town U.S.A. and surrounded by “dry” Indian reservations; and Flagstaff, Ariz., near the Navajo Reservation.

The alcohol-related death rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives is 550 percent higher than among the general population, and alcohol is involved in 90 percent of the criminal cases in the Nome region. Local govrnments must deal with the fallout of drinking but also thrive on the business of drinkers; Nome, for example, earns $5.5 million annually from alcohol sales, equal to more than half the municipal budget.

The city had cracked down on bars that serve intoxicated patrons and trimmed closing times. But Nome still lacks an inpatient addiction-treatment center. “In the early '80s, when I first got here, the bars were open until 5 a.m.,” said City Manager Randy Romenesko. “Obviously there are lots of things that can be done, but the question is does anyone want to do them. Bottom line, it's a community decision.”

 

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