It has become a festive tradition for residents without family in the UAE. On Tuesday, rather than slaving over a hot stove, thousands will opt for a Christmas Day brunch.
But package deals on offer across the city’s bars and restaurants have one unwelcome feature – and it is not Brussels sprouts.
“Bottomless” alcohol deals, which are commonly included in a set price not only at Christmas but throughout the year, are encouraging binge drinking, doctors have warned.
Worldwide, 3.3 million deaths each year are related to the harmful use of alcohol, representing slightly more than 5 per cent of all deaths, the World Health Organisation says. And alcohol consumption is a factor in more than 200 diseases and injuries.
Doctors say the offers, which allow customers to drink as much alcohol as they like over a certain period for a set price, are leading to alcohol-related health complications.
The deals are causing health problems for those who might already be susceptible to alcohol problems, said Dr Girish Banwari, medical director and specialist psychiatrist at LifeWorks in Dubai.
Dr Banwari said while the most severe cases of alcoholism were treated in hospitals and inpatient clinics, it was common to see mild to moderate alcohol-related problems.
“There is a certain social acceptability around drinking, that it’s the thing to do when you are with friends and helps you socialise,” he said.
"When it's unlimited, or it's in a setting that it is facilitated, promoted or it's encouraged that you indulge more, the drinking goes up, and it's a very thin line between you feeling it's in your control and when you cross the line and lose control."
Only non-Muslims who have an alcohol licence valid for their emirate can buy or drink alcohol.
Only Dubai and Abu Dhabi issue alcohol licences and Sharjah is the only dry emirate.
The UAE recently introduced a licence fee and tightened regulations about how alcohol is advertised, banning the use of terms such as “hops” and “grapes” at the risk of fines.
In Abu Dhabi, a 30 per cent tax was introduced on alcohol bought in off-licence outlets to reduce consumption by making the process comparatively difficult by international standards.
Penalties for those who illegally sell or offer alcoholic drinks to those without a valid licence include imprisonment for six months, a fine of Dh5,000 or both. The UAE also has a zero-tolerance policy for drunk-driving.
Some health professionals told The National that these restrictions could attract people with alcohol problems who hope that living in the UAE will allow them tostay away from alcohol. But they find heavy drinking is common in some residential communities.
Drinkers must take responsibility for their actions and companies must take care of their customers' health to stop the potential damaging effects of brunch deals, Dr Banwari said.
"It requires control from everyone's point," he said. "Even if it's offered in unlimited quantities, it does not have to mean you harm yourself just because you're getting something that's unlimited or low cost.
“The companies that are offering set schemes or unlimited [alcohol] need to have a certain social responsibility and understanding that this is promoting problem behaviour.
“And regulators need to step in as well. So a balance is required from all the sides. It definitely is a problem that a lot of people are struggling with.
“We have a lot of psychiatric treatment facilities but there can be a stigma about getting treatment for addiction, especially in the Middle East.
“In mild to moderate cases, people don’t always have an insight that it’s a problem and they think it’s a normal part of their culture that they drink.”
What countries are doing to curb alcohol abuse
Countries with a strong drinking culture have clamped down on promotions involving alcohol in an effort to improve public health.
All-you-can-drink deals were once common in the UK, but the country banned “irresponsible” offers, including “provision of unlimited or unspecified quantities of alcohol free or for a fixed or discounted fee” without a meal, years ago.
While there has been a rise in popularity of bottomless brunches involving food, the development is regularly criticised by health campaigners who warn that they are fuelling binge drinking and increasing risk of conditions like liver disease. There are also strict rules about how they can be promoted.
Scotland has gone further, banning multi-buy drinks promotions and even imposing a 50p (Dh2.33) minimum price per unit of alcohol in bars and shops.
Several US states also outlaw unlimited alcohol promotions, while the Balearic Government recently set out plans to ban all-inclusive alcohol deals in hotels in popular destinations such as Majorca and Ibiza. Russia has controlled vodka prices since 2009.
The World Health Organisation recommend tighter regulation on the marketing of alcohol, restricting availability, increasing taxation and raising awareness of public health problems caused by harmful use of alcohol. Its goal is a 10 per cent reduction in the harmful use of alcohol worldwide by 2025.
A large global study, published in the Lancet this year, has confirmed previous research which has shown that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. Even moderate drinking increases the risk of cancer and other health problems, researchers found.