Are Canadians drinking too much alcohol?

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By Sylvain Charlebois
  Looks like Canadians are drinking way too much alcohol. According to a recent report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) which includes the assessment of over 5,000 different past studies on alcohol consumption from around the world, our country’s alcohol drinking guidelines need to be significantly reduced.   The report recommends a person drink an average of zero to two alcoholic drinks per week to reduce the possibility of suffering adverse outcomes to their health. It’s a stark contrast to the current guidelines, which date back to 2011, and are far more lenient. Low-risk drinking is defined as up to 10 standard drinks per week for women and 15 for men. The report also recommends that we add warning labels to bottles and containers for alcoholic beverages sold in Canada, much like those we have seen on cigarette packages over the years.   The Ottawa-based CCSA, which receives funding from Health Canada, is essentially a non-governmental lobby that advocates for reducing the harm caused by alcohol and drugs. Reports from the group almost read as if alcohol should be outlawed.   In other words, the CCSA’s goal is to raise awareness, reduce the amount of alcohol consumed in Canada and influence policy. Asking them to write the report is like asking People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to review guidelines for the beef industry. It’s simply impossible to overlook potential predispositions and biases.   But the 65-page report is quite comprehensive and sheds some light on new research on alcohol consumption. The new proposed guidelines may make sense to health professionals. After all, according to the World Health Organization, Canadians drink more alcohol than the global average. Based on per capita consumption, Canada ranks about 40thin the world, just above the United States.   During the pandemic, many Canadians did increase their amount of alcohol consumed, according to Statistics Canada. In Ontario, 30 per cent increased their alcohol consumption, followed by the Prairie provinces at 27 per cent, British Columbia at 22 per cent, Quebec at 17 per cent and the Atlantic provinces at 16 per cent. According to the same survey, one in five Canadians acknowledged that they had increased their alcohol consumption since March 2020. We should all be concerned about this. The CCSA report comes at a time when we are all trying to figure out how our post-COVID life will look.   Along with the report’s release, the CCSA launched a four-week consultation process to update Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines (LRDGs). This consultation ends on September 23.   These recommendations are based on improved science, but one can only assume Canadians won’t take these recommendations seriously. Notwithstanding the labelling recommendations that the Canadian public will likely receive with great apprehension, alcohol is very much part of the daily lives of many Canadians. Watching a hockey game, being with family and friends – it’s hard to imagine these moments without alcohol. Alcohol abuse and over-consumption are real issues that need to be dealt with, but most Canadians will probably feel that the proposed guidelines are unrealistic.   In addition, governments in Canada rake in millions in tax revenues from alcohol sales every single year. According to Statistics Canada, the net income of liquor authorities in total taxes and other revenue in Canada was well over $13 billion in 2021. Total tax revenues were over $6 billion. Provinces and Territories depend on these sales to provide dividends to support public expenditure in various ways. Total revenues from liquor boards across the country are up 13 per cent since 2016, which really should be considered a reasonable rate.   But the balance between strong returns and social benefits for consumers is indeed delicate. The guidelines under study will influence our behaviours around drinking, as well as what health professionals will promote to patients and the community at large.   But what strikes many as strange is the relationship between Health Canada and the CCSA.   For Health Canada, to bring more credibility and perspective to the fore, it would have been more beneficial to either conduct consultation on its own or ask several groups to review the literature and come up with different sets of recommendations. It appears CCSA has a monopoly on scientific thought related to alcoholic consumption in Canada, and it should not. This important issue deserves much more consideration from a multitude of perspectives.   Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.