The Current

More Canadians hospitalized for alcohol than heart attacks last year: study

While the opioid crisis continues to grip many provinces, experts warn that a looming alcohol health crisis should not be ignored.
A man drinking beer
Last year, there were about 77,000 hospitalizations caused by alcohol across the country. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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Enjoying a cold brew on a sunny dock seems about as True North as grabbing your usual double-double at a nearby Tim Hortons.

But a new study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) shows that a growing number of Canadians have developed a problematic relationship with alcohol.

Last year, there were about 77,000 hospitalizations caused by alcohol across the country.

According to the CIHI, that's more than the 75,000 that were for conditions related to heart attacks.

And while the opioid crisis gripping many provinces continues to grab headlines, experts warn that a looming alcohol health crisis should not be ignored.

Tim Stockwell, one of the experts consulted on the CIHI study, says the 77,000 cases of alcohol-related hospitalizations are just the "tip of the iceberg." 
Tim Stockwell says 70 per cent of Canadians are unaware of the causal connection between alcohol and cancer. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

"Those figures don't include injuries in car crashes or from alcohol-fuelled violence for example," the director at the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Rather, the figures highlight those who have been hospitalized for alcohol-use disorders such as alcohol poisoning, liver failure, or people who are experiencing adverse symptoms due to alcohol withdrawal.

According to Stockwell, there is research that shows Canadians do not fully understand the harm that alcohol can cause — particularly the causal relation between alcohol and cancer. He says 70 per cent of them are unaware of that connection, one the World Health Organization has recognized for nearly two decades.

In some ways, the federal government's been asleep at the wheel.- Tim Stockwell

"I think if you talk to people, a lot of them first don't believe you … 'Alcohol a cause for breast cancer? Even in low doses? Surely why aren't we being told this? Surely it can't be true,' and it's laughed off and dismissed," he says.

On June 20, the Senate took out a provision of a budget bill proposed by the Liberal government that included an automatic annual increase in alcohol tax.

Stockwell says this move is a cause for concern. 
According to Tim Stockwell's research, consumption and alcohol-related deaths increased the most in areas that had more privatized stores as opposed to provincial monopolies. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

"In some ways, the federal government's been asleep at the wheel. They've lost revenues that could be used for hospitals, schools," says Stockwell. 

The CIHI study also looked at alcohol distribution in Canada and the impact it has on overall consumption. The researchers noticed that consumption and numbers of alcohol-related deaths increased the most in areas that had more privatized stores as opposed to provincial monopolies.

"So there are things governments in Canada are doing now that are allowing things to get worse," he explains.

Despite the alarming statistics, Stockwell suggests that referring to Canada's heavy alcohol consumption as a "public health crisis" gives the impression that the issue just suddenly appeared. He explains it's been an ongoing problem for centuries.

"We can all carry on as a country like we are," says Stockwell.

"But quietly, people are dying and being injured and being sick and losing quality of life all over the country in vast numbers."

Listen to the full discussion at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Donya Ziaee, Lara O'Brien and Willow Smith.