The latest analysis of alcohol sales data in British Columbia, Canada from the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR), has found that people of this province consumed more alcohol during the first pandemic year than in the past 20 years.
The per capita alcohol consumption between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021 was recorded at 9.32 liters. This is the highest CISUR has recorded since the monitoring began in 2001. This is equivalent to 547 cans of 5% beer or 104 bottles of 12% wine per year for each person aged 15+ in the province.
Alcohol use at bars reduced by 60% and at restaurants it declined by 46% during the first pandemic year. However, the alcohol industry has made up for this reduction by driving the rapid increase in alcohol purchases from liquor stores which make up 55% of all alcohol sales in the province.
The wide and easy availability of alcohol specifically during COVID-19 due to the weakening of alcohol laws in favor of Big Alcohol’s profit interests has led to this concerning increase in alcohol use.
It has never been easier to buy alcohol in BC, and we know increased availability of alcohol leads to people [consuming] more,” said Dr. Tim Naimi, director of CISUR, as per UVic News.
COVID-era changes to alcohol policy such as increased hours, government support for liquor retailers to develop online stores, expanded home delivery and declaring liquor stores an essential service have certainly played a role in these increases.”
Dr. Tim Naimi, director, CISUR
Products and practices of the alcohol industry fuel higher alcohol burden
The products and practices of the alcohol industry are threatening the health of Canadian communities and have done so unmitigated for many years. Public health policy has meanwhile failed to protect people from Big Alcohol.
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 modern, evidence-based, and fit-for-purpose alcohol policy solutions has been worsened in several provinces and territories by efforts to further 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 the products and practices of the alcohol industry.
Movendi International has previously reported on the case of Ontario, Canada. 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. The cost to society is felt by communities in Ontario, for example concerning the spike in driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol in the province.
The overall situation went from bad to worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. The alcohol industry drove the increase in alcohol sales by heavy pandemic centered marketing and an aggressive lobbying push to undermine existing alcohol policy rules on provincial and local levels. Many provincial and local governments were subjected to this pressure and deregulated alcohol sales, such as by allowing restaurants and publicly owned alcohol retailers 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.
Window of opportunity for Canadian government to invest in federal alcohol act
The Canadian government has taken action through the the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act to regulate the tobacco industry at the federal level. Just like in the case of the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry is producing, marketing, selling and profiting from a harmful substance adversley affecting the health and well-being of the people. Protecting communities from this harm is the duty of a good government.
A federal alcohol act has the potential to prevent and reduce alcohol harm, promote health and well-being, and help strengthening the health system and the economy.
- 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 to proven, cost-effective alcohol policy solutions, such as provided in the World Health Organization’s SAFER package.
- Strengthen restrictions on alcohol availability,
- Advance and enforce driving under the influence of alcohol counter measures,
- Facilitate access to screening, brief interventions and treatment,
- Enforce bans or comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion, and
- Raise prices on alcohol through excise taxes and other pricing policies.
Any alcohol policy development must be protected against alcohol industry interference and conflicts of interest. The industry has been exposed to systematically target and attack public health policy efforts in Canada. For instance in the case of the Yukon provincial government trying to test health warning labels on alcohol bottles for a research study in 2020. At that time the alcohol lobby threatened legal action. Due to the heavy pressure of the alcohol industry the Yukon government was forced to shut down the study mid-way.
Yukon’s story further illustrates why a federal alcohol act is urgently needed in Canada. The federal government will be able to withstand the pressure of the alcohol industry lobby more effectively than provincial governments can do on their own. In turn, this would lead to better protections of people and communities from alcohol industry pressures to consume ever more alcohol.