British Columbia

Feds, provinces get failing grades on policies to curb alcohol use

Two new studies say the federal and provincial governments must do more to reduce alcohol consumption after determining damages from drinking have surpassed tobacco use.

Most Canadians drink, so politicians can be wary of policies to restrict alcohol, researchers say

Researchers argue that alcohol has hidden costs and governments have done an uneven job at curbing those costs. (David Horemans/CBC)

Two new studies say the federal and provincial governments must do more to reduce alcohol consumption after determining damages from drinking have surpassed tobacco use.

As part of the Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation project, researchers graded the federal, provincial and territorial governments on policy efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm.

Tim Stockwell, director with the University of Victoria's Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, said the federal government earned a 38 per cent grade while the provinces and territories collectively achieved 44 per cent.

Ontario scored the highest grade with a C, although Stockwell said it has "gone backwards" after Premier Doug Ford moved to lower the price of alcohol with his "buck-a-beer" legislation.

Researcher Tim Stockwell said Ontario has 'gone backwards' on alcohol policy after Premier Doug Ford lowered minimum alcohol pricing with his 'buck-a-beer' legislation. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

"We're used to people being disinterested in these policies but what's unusual with Ontario is that they're deliberately, and publicly, and with glee, and relish, going in an opposite direction that will create more problems," he said.

About 80 per cent of Canadians drink, so making alcohol cheaper is a quick, popular thing to do, he added.

But people forget there's a steeper price to pay after making alcohol cheap and readily available, Stockwell said, noting that some of the tragic consequences include death, economic costs, and more people with cancers and liver diseases.

Provinces good in some areas, weak in others

Norman Giesbrecht, a senior scientist at the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said while the impact of alcohol is more noticeable in accidents, behaviour and certain chronic diseases, there may also be an indirect impact on people's mental health.

"If you make alcohol more widely available it becomes a challenge with regard to people who are maybe addicted or maybe in recovery," he said.

"Or it becomes more difficult for them to retain their abstinence or control their drinking if alcohol is more widely available or if it's cheaper and if found at many different outlets."

A Vancouver police officer pulls over a car at a drinking and driving counterattack in December 2017. Researchers noted strong anti-drunk driving laws in British Columbia and other provinces were commendable. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Stockwell said researchers looked at 11 different types of alcohol policy including availability, pricing and taxation, and health and safety messaging, and then developed best practices based on extensive international research.

"There's excellent practices in many areas and by most jurisdictions but they are very, very thinly spread," he said.

Manitoba has a "wonderful" minimum pricing strategy, he said, adding that British Columbia and some other provinces have "fantastic" laws to deter impaired driving.

"And they're being very effective — but across the whole board, every province falls down significantly in some areas even though they perform quite well in others."

Politicians hesitant

The provinces and territories that scored the lowest were New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon.

Recommendations from the researchers include introducing a comprehensive minimum price of $1.75 per standard drink for liquor store sales and $3.50 per standard drink for bars and restaurants, and independent monitoring of alcohol promotions, including both social and other media.

Minimum pricing and more health information would help reduce the deleterious effects of alcohol, researchers suggest. (CBC News)

Tobacco comes with graphic warning images of "people dying in hospital beds," black teeth and diseased lungs, while there's a "whole slew of warning messages" about pregnancy, schizophrenia and impaired driving on cannabis packages, Stockwell said.

"With alcohol we get lovely images of rolling vineyards or images of people looking intoxicated, strange names of drinks that encourage intoxication — so the opposite of health information," he said. "There's an absence of health information."

While a lot of people would not be opposed to a few tough restrictions on these policies, most politicians hesitate to implement them, he said.

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