How we drink: Here’s everything you need to know about Canadians’ overall boozy habits

Written by: Sarah Boesveld | May 15, 2015

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Roughly 80% of Canadians drink alcohol, the boozing majority swelling in size over the better part of a decade. Nearly 22 million Canadians reported throwing back booze in the year 2013, whether it be a tipple or a ton of Tanqueray. Studies show we’re also drinking more than we should: The percentage of Canadians exceeding the low-risk drinking guidelines set out by Canadian health agencies was 18.8% in 2013 compared to 17.6% a decade earlier.

In the year 2014, Canadians over age 15 downed 8 litres of pure booze, or 469 standard drinks. But while ubiquitous beer commercials and these kinds of stats make it seem like we’re on the bottle more than ever, drinkers in the 1989 and the mid-to late 80s actually drank more than we do now: about 8.8 litres per person in a year, or 502 drinks a year. That was the historical peak for our drinking — at least according to the best available data, says Gerald Thomas, a collaborating scientist with the Centre for Addiction Research of British Columbia.


We dried out a little in the 1990s. “I think it has to do with drinking and driving laws — during that period there was a big shift on how we relate to alcohol and driving.” People also became far more health conscious through that decade, he says. But by the turn of the century, we started steadily drinking more, with a bit of a dip in 2012, following the financial downturn. There’s been an increase since, but then a drop in sales in 2013-2014.



How much did you drink last Saturday night? Come on, tell the truth. It turns out we’re very bad at assessing how much alcohol we throw down our gullets. Researchers — grappling with self-reported data they know doesn’t quite reflect reality — are now trying to fix that. A United Kingdom study which explored the discrepancy between survey responses about how much people say they drink and the amount of alcohol sold found 75% of men and 80% of women were drinking above the daily limit. That was 19% and 26% more, respectively, than what they claimed.


A forthcoming Canadian study on the same discrepancy found that only a third of Canadians accurately reported their consumption to interviewers. “The great majority of alcohol sold in Canada is drunk in a way that exceeds national low-risk drinking guidelines,” study co-author and University of Victoria psychology professor Tim Stockwell told the National Post. “[F]urther, the number of people exceeding these guidelines is almost double previous estimates,” When researchers controlled for under-reported data, they estimate more than 40% of Canadians are “higher risk” drinkers.

We aren’t always intentionally misleading those who ask about how many drinks we drink. Part of the problem is we just can’t remember — at least over the long term, says Thomas. Doctors and researchers can take some of the responsibility for that: Instead of asking how many drinks a person has in a year or an average week, they could ask, “How many did you drink last night?” and then work it out from there (more studies are now taking that approach). On top of that, people don’t know what a standard drink looks like. The big glass of wine your sister-in-law pours at the family barbeque is probably more like 10 oz rather than the standard drink of 5. A pint of beer at a pub? That’s one and a half standard drinks. At the end of the day, stigma’s also to blame for our bad counting: No one wants to be painted a drunk. When Thomas gives talks, he’ll ask how many people have been impacted by alcoholism. A wave of hands always goes up. And yet there’s real trouble discussing alcohol. “People are not comfortable talking about these things,” he says.




A whole lot of Canadians prefer to swill their spirits and sip their wine in the comfort of their own homes. “Looking at the data, we see the vast majority of drinking is going on behind closed doors,” says John Mohler, a vice-president at Ipsos Reid, one of Canada’s leading polling agencies, which has run the robust Alcohol Consumption Tracker, a market research tool, since 2011. The 2015 ACT, which has more than 1,000 Canadians keep a monthly online diary of their drinking behaviours, found a full 58% of drinks are consumed in one’s own home and 16% of drinks consumed in the home of another person. This is the case across regions and generations. “It’s cheaper to drink at home, it’s easier, it’s more accessible — you don’t have to go anywhere — you have greater selection, typically,” adds Mohler. “Going somewhere has implications…[this way] you don’t have to drive.” While 80% of drinks are consumed in the presence of somebody else – 29% in the presence of only a spouse and 20% in a large group — 19.6% of drinks are being swallowed alone. Gabor Forgacs, a professor of hospitality at Ryerson University, connects this with the rise in single person households noted in the most recent Census. “I suppose if someone has a meal alone … isn’t it natural to make it less unhappy by adding a glass or two? Who is going to say “Honey, that’s enough for now…?”



We’re most commonly found with a drink in our hands in the evening hours of 5pm to 10 pm, with 66% of total drinks consumed within this timeframe. According to the Ipsos data, 18 percent of drinks are downed from noon to 5 pm, and 14% in the night, past 10pm. Younger generations are more likely to stray outside the evening zone. Men are also more likely to be “routine” drinkers, says Mohler.




The biggest rise in drinking has been amongst women of childbearing years and of European descent, experts say. Countries that rank high on the United Nations index of emancipation have seen a rise in female drinkers in the past number of years (these include countries such as Norway). It’s a trend that has health experts sounding the alarm, because women process alcohol differently than men. “We tend to think, in our culture, of two things: Drunk driving and liver disease,” says Ann Dowsett Johnston, the Toronto-based author ofDrink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, which chronicles the rise in risky drinking amongst women. “We don’t think of the 200+ cancers and diseases related to alcohol ingestion.”Fifteen percent of breast cancers draw a straight line to alcohol, she says. Women drink for a lot of the same reasons as men: To celebrate and relax. But for a modern woman laden with greater expectations on the home front and at work, it becomes both a reward and a socially acceptable coping mechanism, she says. “It’s a quick decompression tool.”



Canadians of European descent are driving the upward trend in drinking, says Jurgen Rehm, the director of social and epidemiological research at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “We have a number of immigrants who drink not a lot or next to nothing, which basically means that the increase you’re seeing [in Canadians drinking] means that those who already consumed quite heavily are now drinking more.” A new study of immigrants to Ontario found that while immigrants tend to drink less than those born in Canada, place of birth was significantly associated with risky drinking, except for people who emigrated from East Asia or Northern Europe.


  1. These stats are interesting but peripheral to the issue of FASD except perhaps for point 5.

    Important stats to know or research are:

    1) The incidence and prevalence of FASD in Canada. Current figures are estimates of about 1% (300000 people)

    2) The annual and lifetime cost to taxpayers of undiagnosed cases from various budgets including medical,
    health, education rehabilitation ,social, housing, mentorship, addictions, judicial, enforcement and correctional.
    Once again current figures are estimates of about $100000.00 per victim per year ($30 Billion annually based on 1%
    prevalence). It would be good to verify this as if it is the case then FASD is, in financial terms the leading public
    health problem in Canada, by far, with a cost of more than the cumulative amount for heart and stroke disease,
    diabetes and cancer and 50% more than road traffic accidents which are also mostly alcohol fueled.

    3)The annual and lifetime cost to taxpayers of diagnosed cases, also from various budgets. This would help to justify
    more diagnostic teams and services.

    4) The effect of banning alcohol advertising and marketing altogether on drinking amongst women of childbearing age.

    5) The effect of banning premixed drinks, such as ice tea beer, on the same cohort.

    6) The longer term reduction of FASD by attaching pregnancy tests and instructions to all containers of alcohol sold
    accompanied by targeted education at point of sale. (SOGC notes that about 34% or Canadian women drink in
    the first trimester before knowing they were pregnant.

    7) The effect on binge drinking amongst women by increasing the price of the cheapest drinks sold at any outlet and
    in any form.(by about 300%)

    Some of this research has already been done in various OECD countries, and it it is really just a matter of introducing the appropriate changes in Canada, given the political will to do so.

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