It’s a sobering nation-wide report with a stark conclusion: Alcohol is one of the greatest public health threats in Canada. And the provinces are not doing enough to curb its deadly potential.
The report, Strategies to Reduce Alcohol-Related Harms and Costs in Canada: A Comparison of Provincial Policies, was published Wednesday by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Lead author Norman Giesbrecht, a senior scientist at CAMH, said it is mind-boggling how lax harm-reduction policies are across the country.
Giesbrecht’s report, which notes 80 per cent of Canadians drink, ranks provinces on 10 key harm-reduction policies, including pricing, availability, marketing, legal drinking age and warning labels.
Ontario came first, Quebec ranked last, and Giesbrecht was disappointed with each province’s score — Ontario’s first-place ranking only reached 56 per cent of a perfect score.
“There’s lots of room for improvement,” he said. “Alcohol does not get a lot of attention in regards to prevention.
“We have a very high rate of alcohol problems,” said Giesbrecht. “We have to give it more attention if we want to reduce the harm.”
Journalist and public speaker Ann Dowsett Johnstonwould agree. An advocate for harm-reduction policies and author of the 11-part 2011 Atkinson series on women and alcohol, published in the Star, Johnson says alcohol has become the new tobacco.
“Alcohol is much more related to disease than we realized in the past,” she said. “We’re seeing an unprecedented growth in harm related to alcohol abuse.”
Johnston, whose book Drink: The Secret World of Women and Alcohol is being published in September, said she hopes Giesbrecht’s report sparks a “national dialogue” on the issue, making the public aware of alcohol’s deadly potential.
She thinks another of the report’s recommendations, that advertising be scaled back, is a no-brainier, especially in Ontario.
The report notes seven of 10 provinces meet only 50 per cent of their full potential on advertising policy, and suggests a simple solution: Shift the “focus of provincial liquor board websites away from product promotion” and towards a “health focused” message.
“The LCBO has a monopoly on alcohol, so why do they need to advertise?” asks Johnston. “It’s alarming.”
Giesbrecht says the lack of attention to the problem of alcohol runs contrary to statistics: Alcohol accounted for 8 per cent of all deaths (under 70 years old) and 7 per cent of all hospital stays in 2002, and between 1996 and 2010, total consumption increased by 13 per cent.
He estimates this translates to a burden of $14.6 billion on health care and law enforcement services, when coupled with costs associated with a loss of productivity in the workforce.
“The provinces need to put some effort into a strategy,” he said. “A strategy is not a magic bullet, but it’s a way of organizing a response to a public health issue.”
The report recommends all provinces set minimum prices to discourage excessive consumption and price alcohol by its strength. It also urges provinces to index prices in line with inflation.
It warns not to move toward privatization, which would only make alcohol more accessible, and suggests limits should be made for the density of outlets based on population to curb accessibility.
Currently, “no provinces, aside from Saskatchewan, have limits on population density that are set through provincial legislation/regulation,” the report notes.
It also proposes health warnings accompany alcohol sales, both on packages, like the shocking images that appear on cigarette packs, and at the point of sale. Bumping the minimum drinking age to 21 would also help, it says.
A separate CAMH study published in the journal Addiction this month says “Canadians drink more than 50 per cent above the global average.”
Kevin Shield, lead author of the Addiction study, said in a press release that “alcohol consumption has been found to cause more than 200 different diseases and injuries.”
“These include not only well-known outcomes of drinking such as liver cirrhosis or traffic accidents, but also several types of cancer, such as female breast cancer,” said Shield.
The epidemic rise in female drinking is the topic of the first roundtable discussion featuring top alcohol experts who are meeting March 8 — International Women’s Day — at One Yonge St. in Toronto.
Co-chaired by Anne Rochon Ford, executive director of the Canadian Women’s Health Network and Atkinson Fellow Ann Dowsett Johnson, the speakers and panelists will include top alcohol experts who will be looking at the wide range of factors affecting the steep rise in alcohol consumption by girls and women, including marketing and pricing. This will be the first in an annual roundtable which will recommend strategies going forward. Sponsors include the Atkinson Foundation, the Canadian Women’s Health Network, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and the Norlien Foundation, with support from Health Canada.