Good health and well-being has become ever more important in the world with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the products and practices of the alcohol industry are threatening the health of people in Canada. Current alcohol policies on provincial levels are left unprotected against alcohol industry lobbying pressure. The alcohol policies in place also are inadequate in protecting people from the growing alcohol harm in the country.
Canada does not have an alcohol policy system at the federal level that unifies the approach to preventing and reducing alcohol harm across the country. Instead alcohol policies are governed by provinces and territories. The lack of adequate regulation has caused several provinces and territories to weaken alcohol policy protections due to alcohol industry lobbying pressures. This way, more and more people in Canada, including children, are being exposed to harms caused by alcohol products.
Ontario – alcohol policy in the interest of Big Alcohol
Ontario is an unfortunate example of the cost of weakening alcohol availability rules in Canada in the interest of Big Alcohol. Movendi International has previously reported about Ontario’s lowering of alcohol policy standards.
Over the years, the Ontario government has been substantially expanding the places and times where alcohol can be purchased making alcohol much more easily and widely available, and thus driving consumption and related harms. The Ontario government used alcohol industry talking points to explain the weakening of the province’s alcohol policy: improving choice and convenience for consumers and supporting jobs in the hospitality industry.
However, the costs are far greater. For example, in Ontario the lowering of alcohol policy standards 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 high-risk patterns.
Prioritizing private profits of the alcohol industry endangers public health, the key tradeoff that the Ontario government has made so far.
Bigger availability, more alcohol use, greater harms
It is a well established fact that when availability of alcohol rises alcohol consumption increases and alcohol harms rise in communities. Canada is no exception to this rule.
Evidence shows that alcohol harm is a much bigger problem in Canada than opioids, but the harm caused by Big Alcohol receives much less political attention compared to opioids, for instance.
It is estimated that annually alcohol causes:
- 18,000 deaths,
- Costs amounting to an estimated $16.6 billion annually in
- health care,
- lost productivity,
- criminal justice, and
- other direct costs.
Furthermore, in Canada alcohol causes:
- 90,000 hospital admissions,
- 240,000 years of life lost, and
- 38% of all healthcare costs in 2014 were attributable to alcohol abuse.
- An economic toll of $16.6 billion in 2015-2017, which is greater than that from either tobacco use or from cannabis, opioids and all illegal substances combined.
COVID-19 further exacerbates harm caused by Big Alcohol
The COVID-19 pandemic is further worsening the current levels of harm caused by alcohol industry products and practices. Alcohol sales increased during the pandemic in Canada, driven by the heavy pandemic centered marketing of the alcohol industry and the aggressive lobbying push for weakening existing alcohol policy rules on provincial and local levels.
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.
Scientific research warns that the same trend seen in the United States (U.S.) with alcohol playing a major role in the declining life expectancy might be catching up to Canada as well. Increasing alcohol availability in the interest of alcohol industry profits will further accelerate this harmful trend.
Not only in Ontario, but also in Alberta and British Columbia, for example, the privatization and commercialization of alcohol sales and increases in the number of privately owned alcohol retail outlets were associated with increases in deaths due to alcohol. Unfortunately, people of lower socio-economic status are disproportionately affected by these kinds of policies.
Policy solutions to protect Canadian citizens from harms caused by alcohol products
The World Health Organization recommends the SAFER package of alcohol policy solutions to guide governments in reducing population level alcohol harm cost-effectively.
The SAFER package includes the following five key policy solutions:
- Strengthen restrictions on alcohol availability
- Advance and enforce drink driving [driving under the influence] counter measures.
- Facilitate access to screening, brief interventions and treatment.
- Enforce bans or comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion.
- Raise prices on alcohol through excise taxes and pricing policies.
Movendi International covers the WHO recommended alcohol Best Buy policy solutions which include reducing availability of alcohol, enforcing bans or regulations on alcohol marketing and alcohol pricing policies such as taxes or minimum unit pricing (MUP).
Meanwhile, Brandon-based Community Health and Housing Association, a non profit organization is advocating for alcohol labeling. Currently, that information isn’t required on alcohol labels in Canada.
People need to know how much calories they are consuming so they can make informed decisions,” said Glen Kruck, the former executive director of the association, who now leads several special projects the organization has undertaken, as per CBC.
Glen Kruck, former Executive Director, current Project Lead, Community Health and Housing Association
Kruck says their organization deals with the harms caused by alcohol products and that alcohol addiction is a pervasive problem in Canada.
Drawing parallels with the high sugar beverages, Kruck believes adding caloric information on alcohol products can have a real impact. For high sugar beverages since caloric information became mandatory people became more aware of how these products can fuel obesity.
Adam Sherk, a post-doctoral fellow at the Canadian Institute for Substance Research in the University of Victoria agrees with Kruck on adding caloric information on alcohol products. Virtually all other products in Canada have this information. Only alcohol products are exempt.
Sherk thinks alcohol labeling should go beyond caloric information, pointing out tobacco labeling which carry health warnings. But alcohol gets a free pass despite also being one of the major behavioral risk factors for non-communicable diseases and premature death.
Sherk advocates for similar labeling as on tobacco products for alcohol products as well. Starting with cancer risk warning was a good point.
I would first do health warnings, particularly around … alcohol and cancer [and] alcohol and heart disease,” he said, adding calorie counts would be important to add, as per CBC.
It’s kind of in this broader context of strengthening our alcohol labelling in Canada and in the provinces.”
Adam Sherk, post-doctoral fellow, Canadian Institute for Substance Research, University of Victoria
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 in Canada. 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.
This is exactly why a federal alcohol policy is also urgently needed. The federal government will be able to withstand the pressure of the alcohol industry lobby far more effectively than provincial governments can do on their own. And this would lead to better protections of people and communities from alcohol indusry pressures to consume ever more alcohol.
Toronto Star: “Population health versus convenience: The sobering cost of alcohol policy liberalization“
CBC: “Alcoholic beverages need labels with calorie counts, Manitoba group says“