Ontario can’t ignore the dangers of making booze more available

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TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion/Editorials
July 25, 2019.

Alcohol is Canada’s favourite drug. Eighty per cent of Canadians drink; about 20 per cent are heavy users. Beer, wine and liquor are the lubricant at almost every social event.

Canadians, of course, are aware that alcohol can cause harm. The standard-issue hangover is the best known one. Other harms are much worse, from alcohol abuse that upends families to impaired driving that costs lives.

And now a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) has revealed worrisome new trends.

The study’s authors examined alcohol-related emergency-room visits in Ontario from 2003 through 2016. The primary finding? Booze is sending more and more people to hospital. Over 14 years, the rate of ER visits directly linked to alcohol abuse rose at 4.4 times the rate of overall visits.

Groups at the highest risk are men in their 50s, and people in the lowest-income quintile. The results also showed troubling increases for women and men in their 20s and 30s, in the last five years of the study especially.

One highlighted figure is the surge in emergency visits among women in their mid-to-late 20s – a 240-per-cent jump in 2016 compared with 2003.

The authors didn’t seek to determine causes but suggested the marketing of alcohol – in particular to women – could be a factor. They added that the loosening of rules around alcohol in Ontario in recent years occurred only at the end of their study.

It is against this backdrop – liberalizing alcohol sales in Ontario – that this study landed. The former Liberal provincial government allowed beer and wine on some grocery-store shelves. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have pledged to get beer into corner stores, and to open more sales outlets across the province.

Before the recent changes, Ontario had the most restricted alcohol sales of all the provinces – and, not coincidentally, the third-lowest per-capita consumption.

The highest consumption tends to occur in provinces where alcohol is most readily available for sale: Newfoundland, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, according to figures in a 2017 study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information on alcohol harm.

But the CIHI data showed that having more places to buy booze and higher per-capita consumption doesn’t necessarily correlate with hospitalizations because of alcohol use, or with the prevalence of heavy drinking.

More broadly, Canada isn’t exactly a hard-drinking country. Canadians drink less than Americans and most Europeans, and the country ranks below average among OECD countries for alcohol consumption.

Still, the costs are significant. Direct health-care costs pinned on alcohol use in 2014 were tallied at $11.1-billion.

With widening availability in Ontario, a development welcomed by many people, the provincial government (and others) should look at the various levers available to limit the harms of alcohol.

Taxes and price minimums are always cited by health experts as measures to quell demand. Clamping down on alcohol advertising is also a common suggestion.

Another tool is mandatory warning labels. Think of cigarettes, or about how gamblers are cautioned to bet responsibly. Or of the United States, where the federal government has required warnings on bottles since the 1980s that outline the health risks, especially that of drinking during pregnancy, and the dangers of drinking and driving.

Canada has no such requirement, although some alcohol makers include a “drink responsibly” message on their products.

Given the well-known harms – and the new research from Ontario – stamping a clear and striking warning on alcohol in Canada is not unreasonable. People would likely be surprised to learn, for instance, that boozing has sent 3 per cent of Ontarians to the emergency room.

A broader safety push from public-health officials would also help, by providing more air time for the realities of alcohol as a counterpoint to all the ads promoting drinking. A particular focus on at-risk groups would be helpful. Treatment is also key – as is a greater effort to get people there.

Alcohol’s pleasures can blur its harms. The rising tolls cited in the CMAJ report merit an increased effort to get Canadians to see the truth more clearly.

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/article-ontario-cant-ignore-the-dangers-of-making-booze-more-available/

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