Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health says the recent death of an 18-year old after a drinking game is a far too common occurrence and communities need to start taking the problem far more seriously.
Dr. Robert Strang has been trying to sound the alarm about the dangers of alcohol poisoning for years.
He was reacting to the story of Brady Grattan, a Fredericton teen who moved to Grande Prairie, Alta., after graduation.
On Feb. 4, Grattan was at a party and joined the drinking game called beer pong, that involved the consumption of hard alcohol.
Grattan drank a lot, very fast, and passed out. An ambulance was called, but he eventually died in hospital.
Now his parents are speaking out, in hopes it might prevent another death in the future.
Strang said that's the right thing to do, but it can't stop there.
"Something like this raises the dialogue, but if we don't start to then really engage the community and our elected officials and others to say, let's not just talk about it, but what are we prepared to do differently," he said, not much will change.
Far too common
Strang said what some call a one-off occurrence is actually something he sees constantly.
"Unfortunately this is more common than we really imagine," he explained.
"We've had a couple, in the last few years, of high-profile deaths of university students in Nova Scotia. Estimates from the United States … that over 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related incidents every year. So this is a more serious and common problem than perhaps we want to acknowledge."
It's a much wider problem than accidental deaths as well, he explained.
The chief medical officer said parents and doctors need to be raising awareness about these deaths. He said the only time this issue gets widespread attention is when a death happens.
"I know very directly that every Friday and Saturday night in Halifax, our emergency rooms are full of university students suffering from the effects of over-consumption of alcohol," he said.
'We need to do a better job of protecting our young people.' - Dr. Robert Strang
"It's not just university students, there's young people especially who put their lives at risk in the way they are consuming alcohol on a weekly basis, whether it's on university campuses or other settings. And our health system and criminal justice system pays a big price for that in terms of injuries and assaults and a whole range of other health outcomes."
Strang is calling for a whole new way of thinking and talking about alcohol and making some pretty big decisions if change is going to happen.
"There's good evidence around about what actually could make a difference but a lot of it requires fundamentally rethinking our approach to alcohol and there's a lot of vested interests that don't want to have that conversation," Strang said.
"So I think it really has to start with communities."
"We need to step back and go, what are we really willing to do perhaps differently around alcohol? I think the first thing is to acknowledge that alcohol is a drug. While it may have some positive benefits in our society, it's also a very dangerous drug."
Strang suggests a radical change in thinking could tackle the glamorous image that surrounds alcohol, in its packaging and advertising, in every form of media.
"It's funny to be drunk in these kind of things, we never see the downside in all the advertising that goes along with this," he said.
"You need to use alcohol to be successful, to be sexy, to find a partner, and never, ever is it portrayed that there are harms. And even the products, the labeling on there, there's nothing on the bottles that will tell you the safer way to drink, and nothing about warnings, so there's nothing in the whole alcohol environment which really allows young people to have a more firm appreciation of the risks of this drug."
Changing community attitudes
Much like with what happened with smoking over several years, Strang is promoting initial steps to change attitudes in communities.
"We're doing some work in Nova Scotia around municipal alcohol policies and working with municipal governments to really ask questions, well why do you need to have alcohol and beer tents at every family festival?" he said.
"Some of our municipalities are even looking at banning the use of alcohol in hockey arenas, in dressing rooms. All those things that people may say initially, what's the big deal? Well, it's that cumulative effect of how alcohol is portrayed that we need to start doing things differently if we're going to change young people's attitudes and behaviours around alcohol."
Strang is encouraged by the hundreds of thousands of hits on Brady Grattan's story so far this week, but says now is the time to take it further.
"We need to do a better job of protecting our young people."