British Columbia

Whether alcohol gets warning labels or not, attitudes toward booze are already changing, industry insiders say

New guidance on alcohol consumption emerged this week in Canada, suggesting no one consume more than two drinks per week, while some call for health warnings on alcohol packaging similar to that of tobacco products.

New guidance suggests people have no more than 2 alcoholic drinks per week, raising calls for warning labels

A man wearing a shirt that says 'Edna's' sits at a bar
Longtime bartender Nick Devine entered the non-alcoholic cocktail industry after seeing more people opting for booze-free drinks. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Nick Devine has been a bartender for, as he puts it, "a long time."

He's owned a brewery and worked in restaurants serving thousands of people many more thousands of drinks. 

Devine says he's seen a shift happening in the drinks industry in recent years — one that might become more pronounced after this week's new recommendations for alcohol consumption, which likely had many Canadians thinking twice about ordering another round.

After noticing more people ordering alcohol-free drinks, Devine made a move into the non-alcoholic cocktail industry last year. 

"It's kind of becoming cool not to drink now and I think certainly with my generation and older generations we're starting to pay attention to cutting down, monitoring our consumption somewhat, which I think is a good thing going forward," he said. 

"I'm not here preaching 'don't drink.' I enjoy a drink too, but I think it's a good thing that people are keeping their alcohol consumption in check."

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), released a report on Tuesday suggesting no amount of alcohol is safe and recommending no one consume more than two drinks per week. 

Previous guidance recommended no more than 15 drinks for men and 10 drinks a week for women to reduce long-term health risks. Small amounts of alcohol are now linked to up to nine kinds of cancer, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

New guidance on alcohol consumption suggests more than two drinks a week increases risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

The new guidance says three to six drinks a week increases the risk of developing certain cancers, while seven drinks a week or more increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. The danger goes up with every additional drink.

Tim Stockwell, a scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, said an important part of this new guidance is informing people on what a standard drink actually looks like. 

"You don't know what your risk is until you know how much you're drinking. You can't count how much you're drinking until you know what a standard drink is," he said. 

'Essentially the [cancer] risk from alcohol, it's a dose response. The bigger and more frequent the dose, the higher your risk,' says Tim Stockwell, a senior scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria. (University of Victoria)

The solution, as he and other experts have suggested, is putting that information, as well as health risks, on beverage packaging labels, similar to health warnings on tobacco products. 

In 2017, public health researchers and the Yukon government agreed to test cancer warning labels on alcohol containers in the government-owned liquor store in Whitehorse.

Less than a month after the cancer labels were put on, they were taken off under pressure from the alcohol industry. Even in that short time, Stockwell said, researchers found that by the end of the study alcohol sales dropped by about seven per cent. 

But Jeff Guignard, executive director with the Alliance of Beverage Licensees in B.C., says labels are "irritating for consumers" and they don't work, noting that the tobacco industry still makes billions of dollars each year despite warning labels on cigarette packets.

A label can't be placed on a pint of beer or glass of wine in bars and pubs, adds Guignard, whose organization represents 1,000 establishments and private liquor and cannabis stores in the province.

By the time someone has decided to buy alcohol, their mind is made up and no label will change their mind, he said. 

"Teach this to teenagers in high school, so it's part of their curriculum, so they can understand the risks associated with it and we can make some more responsible choices as adult citizens," he suggested.

A man sits in front of a bookshelf
Jeff Guignard, executive director with the Alliance of Beverage Licensees in B.C., says warning labels on alcoholic drinks won't work. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Stockwell says it's no surprise people in the industry would push back against the label proposal. 

"They make their money from selling as much alcohol to us as possible. And when they succeed, public health and safety is compromised," he said.

"We the people should decide these things, not commercial vested interests."

With files from Jon Hernandez, Ioanna Roumeliotis and Brenda Witmer

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