Convenient access to alcohol is going to cost us

Posted on June 12, 2024 in Health Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Health
Jun 11, 2024.   Written by Iris Gorfinkel,MD

OPINION: Ontario’s plan to expand access could create catastrophic harms — but calls to action are being ignored

Purchasing beer, wine, cider, and ready-to-drink cocktails is about to get a lot easier in Ontario. What’s now limited to 1,100 LCBOs and Beer Stores will, by November, balloon to 8,500 retail outlets, including grocery, convenience, and big-box stores. Without a doubt, this vast array of new options will add convenience, but it’ll come at a steep cost to health care and government coffers.

Making alcohol more accessible will almost certainly increase use and the injuries and violence that come with it. It will profoundly affect people already struggling emotionally, because of alcohol’s highly addictive nature and its ability to deepen depression and exacerbate anxiety while increasing suicide risk. Alcohol also raises blood pressure, worsens diabetes, and increases the risk of having — and dying from — a heart attack, stroke, or cancer, including cancers of the breast, colon, liver, stomach, and pancreas.

Expanding alcohol’s availability to retail stores will make enforcing its safe sale far more difficult. According to its website, the LCBO challenged 12 million purchases last year from people thought to be under 25 or who appeared to be intoxicated. Such challenges will be tougher when many thousands of retailers, operating under less oversight, are asked to balance profits against the interests of public health. This could prove especially damaging to those under 19 and be detrimental to the mental health of Ontario’s one in five children and youth — not to mention their caregivers and loved ones — already struggling with their psychological well-being.

The example of the United States offers cold comfort when it comes to expanding alcohol’s availability. Alcohol has been widely available for years in retail outlets and even in pharmacies. But unlike our neighbours to the south, Canada has a binding social contract to provide universal health care, an agreement that the added shopping convenience for alcohol threatens.

All this comes at a time when diagnoses and treatments are being delayed in the face of unprecedented widespread health-care staffing shortages. One in six Ontarians currently lack a family doctor, a number that’s expected to rise to one in four by 2026. Patients waits in Ontario ERs for an average of 22 hours before being admitted, nearly three times the recommended provincial target. Even worse, several Ontario ERs have limited their hours due to insufficient health-care staff.

The Pros and Cons of Alcohol Deregulation – How can the province balance economic boosts with alcohol-related harms?  Play Video: Agenda segment, June 4, 2024: The pros and cons of alcohol deregulation

Yet these well-founded concerns have been ignored. How the added demands on health care will be met has yet to be addressed. The only solution on offer from Ontario’s government so far is a paltry $10 million that’ll be doled out over five years, a figure that doesn’t begin to move the needle on an annual mental-health budget that exceeds $3.8 billion.

Some may believe that revenues generated from alcohol will offset its costs. Not so, according to a rigorous breakdown by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. An extensive review showed that while alcohol sales in 2020 put $3.2 billion into Ontario’s coffers, they came at a cost of $7.1 billion. That left the province with an alcohol deficit of $3.9 billion. Health care accounted for $2.3 billion. The rest went to servicing alcohol-related criminal-justice and lost production costs. These figures reflect a deficit capped by the limited number of LCBO and Beer Stores, a limit that will soon cease to exist.

Having the convenience to purchase alcohol comes at grave costs that cannot be blithely ignored or dismissed. It’ll be a severe blow to Canada’s already fraying promise to provide timely access to health care, as well as a burden to Ontario’s already massive debt. Turning a blind eye to its profound price tag will erode Canada’s social contract and be an affront to public health and fiscal management.

This article was originally published on Canada Healthwatch.

Iris Gorfinkel is a family physician, clinical researcher, and medical contributor to CBC Radio.

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