Good health is important for everyone to enjoy a good quality of life and for people to live up to their fullest potential. Ensuring citizens have good health is an indicator for good governance across the world.
In Canada, however, alcohol harm is threatening the health of citizens. The products and practices of the alcohol industry have long posed a serious and growing threat to the health and wellbeing of people and communities in Canada, as Movendi International has previously reported. For instance, evidence shows that alcohol harm is a much bigger problem in Canada than opioids, but the harm caused by Big Alcohol receives much less attention compared to for instance opioids.
It is estimated that annually alcohol causes:
- 15,000 deaths,
- 90,000 hospital admissions,
- 240,000 years of life lost,
- 38% of all healthcare costs in 2014 were attributable to alcohol abuse.
- An economic toll of $16.6 billion (2015-2017), which is greater than that from either tobacco use or from cannabis, opioids and all illegal substances combined.
The COVID-19 pandemic is further worsening the existing harm caused by alcohol industry products and practices in the country.
Alcohol sales increased during the pandemic in Canada, driven by the heavy pandemic centered marketing by the alcohol industry and deregulation efforts by provincial and local governments. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction reports that about a quarter of Canadians staying at home due to the pandemic increased their alcohol intake.
Products and practices of the alcohol industry threaten Canadian citizens’ health
The products and practices of the alcohol industry are threatening the health of Canadian citizens and have done so unmitigated for many years. Public health policy has meanwhile failed to protect citizens from Big Alcohol. Canada currently does not have a federal alcohol policy in place as it does for tobacco. Therefore, alcohol policies and laws depend on provincial governments. But provincial governments can not withstand the pressure from the alcohol industry alone leading to weakening of policies.
The lack of a federal policy led to many existing alcohol policies being weakened due to alcohol lobby pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants and publicly owned alcohol retailers were allowed to deliver alcohol during the pandemic which was not possible before. For example, the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC) is implementing a home delivery model akin to other private businesses.
The weakening of provincial policies has devastating effects on communities, as shown by the Ontario example. Due to the Ontario government’s weakening of alcohol policies, alcohol became even more easily available and accessible – such as through home delivery and extreme price promotions. This resulted in a spike in driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol in the province, thus endangering the lives of many people. The weakening of policies also led to young people using alcohol in more risky patterns.
Perfect window of opportunity for government action on a federal alcohol act
The pandemic has given the Canadian government a perfect window of action for a federal alcohol act. When industries which produce, market and profit from harmful substances affect the health of citizens, governments have a duty to take action to control these industries and protect citizens and society, a good example is the effort to control tobacco with the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act in Canada.
There are two main reasons for a federal act for alcohol:
- The act would address the public health problem of heavy alcohol consumption by reducing the product’s economic availability.
- The act would harmonize and update the patchwork of existing provincial alcohol policies to provide legal and regulatory clarity and a reinvigorated public health response.
The Canadian government can look into proven effective policy measures:
- Pricing: Minimum unit pricing (MUP) which is proving effective in Scotland and improving alcohol taxation through a volumetric taxation structure.
- Marketing: Targeted restrictions to alcohol advertising with an emphasis on preventing online advertising via social media platforms.
- Labeling: Mandatory health warnings on alcohol products. This measure serves to increase awareness on alcohol’s risks such as cancer and was shown to have some effect by several studies in Canada.
Pricing and marketing are two of the three alcohol policy best buys recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Limiting alcohol availability for example through reducing outlet density and opening hours is the third best buy alcohol policy solution.
It is important to protect any public health policy making in Canada from the alcohol industry. Big Alcohol has proven to systematically target and attack public health policy efforts. For example, when the Yukon provincial Government placed health warning labels on alcohol bottles for a research study in 2020, the alcohol lobby threatened legal action. Due to the heavy pressure of the alcohol industry the Yukon government shut down the study.
A strong federal alcohol act such as for tobacco, can withstand industry pressure far better than a provincial government do on its own.