New alcoholic treatment centre in Vancouver keeps drinking on the table

The Alavida clinic takes the focus away from abstinence in favour of a harm reduction model.

Alavida clinic founder says a lot of people aren't ready or willing to commit to abstinence

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A new alcoholic treatment clinic that doesn't require patients to quit drinking has opened its doors in Vancouver.

The Alavida clinic has started a treatment program at its facility on West Broadway that aims to take a harm reduction approach to people battling alcoholism. 

According to the clinic's program director and co-founder, Dr. Terri-Lynn MacKay, patients are able to set their own goals, which can include drinking socially.

"People come in with whatever their treatment goal is — we don't mandate what their goal is," said MacKay on CBC's BC Almanac. "For a lot of them, the treatment goal is to reduce their level of drinking to a state where it's not causing as much harm."

Alvida's programs are modelled on a Finnish alcohol treatment method that combines counselling with medication, according to MacKay.

When patients start the program, they are prescribed a drug called naltrexone, which blocks the reinforcing effects of alcohol. She says the medication increases the likelihood of abstinence and reduces chances for relapse.

"It's an extinction-based approach," she said. "People don't get as much pleasure from drinking as they would, and eventually, over time, what you find is people reduce their overall alcohol consumption."

The program also includes five sessions with a therapist and three with a doctor. The combined approach is based off a body of research that's been exploring alternatives to traditional abstinence-based treatment.

The clinic offers services in-house and for British Columbians across the province, using Telehealth

Alavida's current alcohol treatment program costs $5,000, but it's only covered by some medical insurance providers, and it's not covered by MSP. MacKay says Alavida is working towards wider coverage.

In comparison, rehab facilities in Vancouver can cost tens of thousands of dollars over the course of their treatment programs, but many of them are covered by medical insurance or employment benefits. Alcoholics Anonymous support groups are free.

Abstinence vs. moderation

MacKay says what sets the Alavida program apart is its openness to continued consumption.

"There's a lot of people that aren't ready or willing to commit to abstinence," said MacKay. "A lot of the traditional programs will exclude those people from treatment."

Last Door, an addictions recovery centre in New Westminster, is one of many rehab facilities that only offers abstinence-based recovery for alcoholism.

"Our program is for people that want to become abstinent," said Gissuepi Ganci, Last Door's director of community development.

"Abstinence is the way to go for everybody. It lessens the burden on society, it makes people healthy, it makes people more present in their community — for people with addictions, mind you.

"A harm reduction approach helps people get to a place where they will hopefully make a decision that involves an abstinence lifestyle."

Ganci equates recovery with abstinence — a view shared by many rehab facilities, as well as AA. But he says he is still happy to see more options open for people battling addiction.

"Some people just cannot stop using alcohol, so if we can make their lives easier, then that's fantastic," he said. "However, alcoholics do recover."

With files from CBC's BC Almanac


To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: First alcohol harm reduction facility opens in Vancouver, treating alcoholism without mandating abstinence