The ongoing opioid crisis and rash of overdoses from illicit drugs has been at the forefront of many British Columbian's minds, but the biggest, least discussed addiction on the rise in the province is a legal substance: alcohol.

B.C. has the highest rate in the country of hospitalizations entirely caused by alcohol, and consumption is rising faster in the province than elsewhere in Canada.

British Columbians who imbibe consume, on average, 9.4 litres of pure alcohol each year —   the equivalent of roughly 14 bottles of beer or two and half bottles of wine each week.

Consumption has continued to rise every year since 2012.

Addictions researcher Tim Stockwell said the provincial government's policy to make alcohol available in more locations and at more times of the day is a factor in the high level of consumption. 

"Efforts have been made to liberalize its availability without doing much to minimize some of the consequences," said Stockwell.

Annual per capita alcohol consumption in B.C.

British Columbians, on average, drank 9.40 litres of absolute alcohol in 2016-2017, the equivalent of roughly 14 bottles of beer or two and half bottles of wine each week. (Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research/University of Victoria)

Day to day costs

Dr. Keith Ahamad, an addictions doctor at St. Paul's Hospital and a researcher at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, witnesses the consequences of alcohol addiction firsthand every day.

"The hospital is literally filled with the consequences of alcohol addiction," Ahamad said. "The number of people that present to the emergency department as a direct consequence of acute alcohol intoxication day-to-day is overwhelming."

Last year, at least 36 per cent of emergency room visits to St. Paul's and Vancouver General Hospital for substance abuse were alcohol-related. 

That number is conservative and just relates to cases where excessive drinking was the cause, Ahamad said.

It doesn't include broken bones, injuries related to impaired driving, violence caused by someone who had been drinking or other long-term consequences of alcohol abuse.  

By comparison, 24 per cent of emergency room visits relating to substance abuse were because of opioids.

In Canada, as a whole, there were more hospital admissions for alcohol-related conditions than for heart attacks last year and the cost to the medical system is high, with the average stay entirely caused by alcohol estimated at more than $8,000.

Medical system response

Ahamad said a big part of the problem is the medical system's response to alcohol addiction.

"The health-care system has just not been trained to screen for addiction appropriately," he said.

Drinking isn't going to disappear anytime soon, Ahamad said, but more needs to be done to reduce the harm.

"I think we have accepted that we do like alcohol," he said. "We also have a culture around accepting alcohol in our society … We just have to minimize those risks."

More focus is needed on preventative measures, harm reduction and comprehensive approaches to treating people with alcohol addiction, he said.

"It's difficult to see day in and day out," Ahamad said. "Alcohol consumption is a major, major public health concern."

To hear more, click on the audio link below:


This story is part of CBC Radio One's series Wasted Lives: B.C.'s Biggest Addiction Crisis, produced by Jodie Martinson.

Tune into On The Coast, weekdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. PT, to hear the series. It runs Dec. 4 - 8, 2017.