Canada’s chief public health officer wants you to think twice before reaching for that glass of red wine.
“Recent evidence is suggesting there is no (health) benefit,” Dr. Gregory Taylor tells the Star.
In a new, data-rich report on national alcohol consumption released by his office on Wednesday, Taylor invites parliamentarians, policy-makers, liquor producers, retailers and the 22 million other Canadians who reportedly drink to reconsider what they think they know about wine, beer, coolers and spirits.
At least 4.4 million Canadians are drinking enough alcohol to expose themselves to long-term risks such as cancer, the report notes. And 70 per cent have no clue that alcohol is actually a carcinogen.
While overall, self-reported consumption is down slightly from previous years, binge-drinking among women, especially those aged 35 and older is on the rise.
In 2013, 56 per cent of women reported binge drinking (four drinks or more in one sitting) at least once in the previous year, up from 44 per cent in 2004.
“Because the majority of Canadians drink, and choose to drink, I’d like to see a conversation started,” Taylor said. “There might be a number of things we as a country want to do in terms of how we can reduce the harms.”
The conversation might start by redefining alcohol in the Food and Drugs Act. Alcohol is classified as a food, despite the fact that it contains psychoactive chemicals that can alter thinking, mood, behaviour and may lead to dependence and abuse.
“Symbolically, it’s important they say front and centre that this is a drug,” said Norman Giesbrecht, senior scientist emeritus Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “They wouldn’t call tobacco a type of grain.”
Giesbrecht has done extensive research on alcohol addiction and government policies. He’s currently working with American researchers to study the link between alcohol and suicide.
He hailed Taylor’s “fabulous report,” calling it “required reading” for ordinary Canadians, researchers, government staff and groups that promote alcohol use, particularly in Ontario where government has allowed beer sales in supermarkets.
He was pleased to see the report challenge widely-promoted research that played up the benefits of alcohol, including red wine. Taylor’s report countered the popular research by citing several meta-analyses and systemic reviews on the topic.
“Some evidence suggests . . . low to moderate doses can be beneficial,” the report states. “These beneficial effects may not be directly due to alcohol consumption with recent research raising many questions about this association . . . Low to moderate drinking may only protect against ischemic stroke (blood clots) and not other types of stroke, while heavy drinking increases the risk for all types of stroke.”
If only the report took as close a look at advertising’s impact on alcohol consumption and the regulatory weaknesses in Canada’s system, Giesbrecht said.
“Advertising is blossoming,” he said. “With the Internet and social media, there’s just a lot more promotion of alcohol than there was 10 or 20 years ago. I don’t think our control systems are keeping pace with that.”
Despite federal and provincial guidelines that restrict alcohol advertisements from appealing to minors, youth are exposed to more than 300,000 alcohol ads each year through radio, television and the Internet, according to a 2012 commentary in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.
Taylor was quick to point out shortcomings in his report, including “wickedly out of date” data on the broader costs of alcohol consumption.
The last time Canadian researchers broke down the estimated price tag of alcohol abuse — dollars spent in health care, law enforcement, lost productivity, traffic accident damages, fire damages, administrative costs, prevention and research — it was 2002 and the total was estimated at almost $15 billion.
He invited academics to read his report and help fill in the data gaps.
Because at the end of the day, he said, he’s not advocating for abstinence but informed decision making.
“You need to know the risks you’re taking when you drink.”