FAIRBANKS — From spreading a culture of moderation nationwide to advocating better communication between parents and kids, health officials in Canada have been working to reduce the harmful effects of underage drinking.
Canada’s legal drinking age is lower than that of the United States — 18 or 19, depending on the province — but the country sees similar rates of underage drinking and many of the same risks associated with it.
While health officials there have historically focused on prevention and enforcement efforts, there has been more of an acknowledgment in recent times that children will get access to alcohol and that they need to know how to drink responsibly if not legally.
Dr. Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, said a main difference between the approaches to underage drinking in Canada and the U.S. is that Canada has been leaning more toward education than prohibition. The centre is a nonprofit created by federal law and is tasked with creating awareness of issues surrounding alcohol and drug use.
Paradis pointed to Canada’s national alcohol strategy, “Reducing Alcohol-Related Harm in Canada: Toward a Culture of Moderation,” which was published in 2007. It includes what are described as “low-risk drinking guidelines,” officially implemented in 2011, that are all about making it clear to both adults and youths that drinking smaller amounts, even on a regular basis, is safer than occasional binge drinking.
The guidelines suggest parents try to delay the age at which a child has his or her first drink, as well as suggesting to all drinkers that men should not consume more than three drinks on a particular occasion and no more than two drinks for women.
Because underage drinkers are more prone to take risks and seek thrills, a higher percentage of them engage in heavy drinking of five or more drinks per occasion, according to public health reports from Health Canada, the federal department responsible for public health in Canada.
Paradis said part of the effort toward reducing the most dangerous underage drinking has been advising parents to take a more proactive role, she said.
“Of course you should delay drinking as much as possible,” said Paradis, reached by phone in Quebec. “But if you hear that your kid is about to start going to parties, maybe you serve them a glass of wine at home, so that they experience alcohol within a safe, secure environment before you let them out there with God knows who and where.”
Still, only about 20 percent of youths in Canada said in surveys that they were aware of the low-risk drinking guidelines, Paradis said. There is an indication that young people who are aware of the guidelines tend to follow them, so health officials continue to work on getting the word out about those guidelines, she said.
There are dozens of other recommendations in Canada’s national alcohol strategy, including strategies on prevention, treatment, availability of alcohol and creating safer overall communities. Some are geared directly toward underage drinking, like a recommendation to look at how the pricing of alcohol might impact sales, legal or otherwise, to younger drinkers.
In a massive undertaking that Paradis is leading, the country is still in the process of evaluating how effective the recommendations from 2007 have been over the past eight years. But Paradis said she already has reason to believe there has been too much emphasis solely on the recommendations related to preventing underage drinking.
“It’s very easy for everybody to say, ‘Oh, well let’s just do prevention,’” she said. “It’s just like a balloon, a water balloon: If you just push on one side, the water just gets pushed on the side. To tackle the issue, we really need to put pressure all around the balloon.”
That means also putting time and money into making alcohol less available to youths and treating alcohol addiction, Paradis said.
For now, “the jury is still out” on what specific recommendations or programs have been most successful, she said.
Meantime, early data show Canada has seen a decrease in the age at which children reported having their first drink and an increase in the percentage of youths completely abstaining from drinking.
Data from 2008 show the average age of Canadian kids having their first drink was 15.6 years old. By 2012, that had risen to 16.2 years old. According to a report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, the earlier a person starts drinking, the more likely they are to drink frequently and heavily.
There was also a shift from 37 percent of Canadian youths reporting in 2008 they were avoiding drinking altogether to 54 percent in 2012, Paradis said.
So the data show a move in the right direction, she said, adding that it is just difficult to say why that is the case until the evaluation is complete.
“Some are even saying it might be a generational thing, a cohort thing. That these things go in waves,” she said. “Who knows? Maybe they’re smoking pot instead.”
Anecdotally, Paradis has seen a shift in how youth view drunken driving related to one of the recommendations in the 2007 report, which called for a “zero tolerance” alcohol policy for teen drivers. Now, in some provinces, anyone younger than the legal drinking age is not allowed to drive with any measurable level of alcohol in their system.
“We really see a shift in culture. When you hear youth talking, for them the idea of taking the wheel after drinking is absolutely ridiculous,” Paradis said. “It was not like that 20 years ago. Certainly not 40 years ago.”
Reporting for the Daily News-Miner’s expanded coverage of efforts to reduce alcohol abuse in Alaska is supported financially by the Recover Alaska Media Project fund at the Alaska Community Foundation. Contributors to the fund are the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Southcentral Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation, Providence Health & Services Alaska, and Doyon, Limited. The News-Miner has sole responsibility for the selection and execution of the stories produced for this project.