It’s Friday night and you’re sitting out on the patio with friends at a Toronto pub. The string of overhead lights swings gently in the warm evening breeze. You shift forward in your seat as the server sets down a frosty glass on the cardboard coaster resting on the table. Reaching forward, you grab the glass and bring it to your lips, savouring the cool taste of your drink.
If I asked what you ordered, you’d probably say some form of alcohol; and you’re not alone. Approximately 80–90 per cent of Canadians drink alcoholic beverages regularly. A new study from the New Zealand’s University of Otago may make some Canadians opt for a different drink next time.
The study published by Professor Jennie Connor concluded that any level of alcohol consumption has been tied to the development of seven different kinds of cancer. Despite the flurry of news articles scrambling to cover the story, this information is not new.
Although alcohol has been linked to cancer in the past, the study admits that miscommunication between scientists and the media, the quality of evidence, and sources of bias in past studies have misled the public with previous stories. One example of this is how red wine is commonly rumoured to prevent heart disease.
“At this point there is no study which basically would deny the role of alcohol on those cancers,” says Jurgen Rehm, Epidemiology Professor with U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “That’s one of the few things that the alcohol industry accepts these days.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also recommended that governments should attempt to decrease unhealthy levels of alcohol consumption, because alcohol can also lead to chronic health problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and lung disease.
The recommendations are known as ‘best buys’: cost-effective, feasible changes that include tax increases, restricted access to retailed alcohol, and bans on alcohol advertising.
While alcohol is harmful to individuals, it serves an important role for governments worldwide. Forty-four cents of every beer sold in Canada goes to the government through taxes, totalling $5.8 billion in annual tax revenues that is allocated to all tiers of government.
Across the pond, England pulls in £36.8 billion annually from beer sales, prompting the argument that alcohol sales could be beneficial for society. But a closer look at the statistics shows that there is a disproportionate number of people who account for that revenue. Of the £36.8 billion, 69 per cent is generated by only 20 per cent of the population — those who are considered harmful or chronic drinkers.
Alcohol costs England’s National Health Service £3.5 billion, with more than one million alcohol-related hospital visits in 2013–2014.
Rehm adds, “You have to decrease drinking among those people who are dependent.”
So, how do we go about trying to bring about change for the better? In some instances, we already have. In British Columbia, minimum pricing — a form of taxation increase — has been implemented, making it harder for chronic drinkers to stock up on cheap alcohol.
Canada has also enacted several driving laws within the Liquor License Act, requiring zero blood alcohol levels in new drivers and banning open alcohol in vehicles.
When dealing with alcohol consumption, it’s not ideal to reimplement prohibition. Instead, policymakers should focus on informing and educating drinkers on the dangers of alcohol, so they can regulate their own consumption.
The WHO has stressed that “beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol brings significant social and economic losses to individuals and society at large.” Bringing this information into the spotlight will hopefully increase the attention to this issue and begin to work towards a solution which will benefit all.