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Why watching alcohol intake is advised, but closing liquor stores would be a problem

Reaching for some liquid relief in this COVID-19 crisis? An alcohol addictions researcher explains why keeping an eye on alcohol intake is a good idea while the outbreak worsens.

'After this is over, our healthcare system will require more resources,' researcher says

An addictions researcher recommends Canadians keep an eye on their alcohol intake as they hunker down against the COVID-19 outbreak. 'After this is over, our health care system will require more resources if people can't go back to earlier levels of alcohol consumption.' (Shutterstock)

Canadians can be forgiven if they feel the need for some liquid relief as the COVID-19 outbreak worsens. 

Alcohol may seem like a source of comfort as coronavirus case counts jump daily, the economy grinds to a halt and almost everyone hunkers down at home, awaiting an uncertain future.  

And while she's not calling for anyone to dump their booze down the sink, an addictions expert says Canadians should keep a close watch over their alcohol intake during these troubled times. 

"It's not a black and white issue but we need to be extremely careful and be mindful of our drinking patterns," said Catherine Paradis, a senior research and policy analyst with Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction, which advises the government on policies related to substance abuse.  

Paradis recommends Canadians try to stick to Canada's low-risk drinking guidelines, which she helped develop.

Those guidelines recommend consumption limits of: 

• 10 drinks a week for women, with no more than 2 drinks a day most days.

• 15 drinks a week for men, with no more than 3 drinks a day most days.

Paradis says moderation is particularly important with almost everyone under orders to stay at home. 

"When you exceed two to three drinks a day you have less patience, you're more irritable," she said. "We don't have time for that now." 

On Tuesday, the Ontario government released its list of businesses deemed essential and allowed to remain open. Others must close to maintain social distancing and curtail the spread of the virus, which has already killed more than 20,000 worldwide.

In Ontario, the LCBO and the Beer Store landed on the list of essential businesses, along with groceries, pharmacies and banks.

Prince Edward Island closed government-run liquor stores, then decided to reopen one liquor store after lineups began to form, creating a different kind of health concern with physical distancing restrictions firmly in place.

But in Newfoundland and Labrador the doors remain shut, with telephone and online orders available.

Quebec and Nova Scotia are among provinces keeping liquor stores open.

Booze sales shutdown would strain health system

Ontario's decision to keep its liquor stores open stirred some debate online, as some felt retail liquor sales should be shut down.

But Paradis says a sudden move to cut off alcohol sales would lead to bad health outcomes and possibly add to the burden of a healthcare system already under strain. 

"For Canadians with severe alcohol abuse disorder, going into withdrawal with little access to medical care could have serious consequences," she said. "It's very important that people who quit drinking do so under medical supervision, which would be very difficult to do right now."

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, made similar comments, saying if access to booze was cut off, it would "lead to pretty significant health consequences." 

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, explains why the LCBO was given essential-service status amid Ontario's mandated closure of non-essential businesses. 0:59

Paradis said even moderate drinkers could suffer if access to all alcohol is restricted. 

"It could lead to stockpiling, which in turn could lead to excessive drinking," she said.  

"What we know is that for many people, having more alcohol than usual in their home, increases the frequency and quantity of alcohol they drink. It's very tempting to use more than usual."

Paradis also pointed to research that came out of Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. People in social isolation during that crisis were more at risk for developing alcohol abuse disorder later on. The trend was particularly strong among seniors. 

"People might start drinking more than they usually do during this and we know that alcohol literacy is low among Canadians," said Paradis. 

"After this is over, our health care system will require more resources if people can't go back to earlier levels of alcohol consumption."

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