Rising female binge drinking rates — and stagnant high rates for men — have experts warning that the ill effects of hard partying in Alberta still aren’t being taken seriously.
“Binge drinking is a larger problem than alcohol dependence,” said Cameron Wild, a professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta.
Wild said about 8.5 per cent of Albertans, an “extremely large number,” meet the criteria for having alcohol problems, including binge drinking.
“That means that there are in excess of a quarter million adults in the province who would meet criteria for having alcohol problems, and this puts them at risk,” said Wild.
According to data from Alberta Health, in 2014 just under 15 per cent of men and about nine per cent of women reported consuming five drinks or more during one event at least twice a month.
While the percentage of male binge drinkers has remained largely unchanged over the last decade, the number of women binging has been increasing, from around 5.25 per cent in 2001 to 8.79 per centin 2014.
Binge drinkers risk health effects including gastrointestinal bleeding, alcohol poisoning, abnormal heart functioning, strokes and respiratory problems.
Repeated nights of hard partying can cause chronic health issues, including liver cirrhosis, diabetes, obesity, pancreatitis and cancer. It can also contribute to mental health issues, increasing the risk of both depression and suicide.
Beyond the negative health impacts, binge drinkers are at greater risk of physical harm from violence, injury and death. According to data collected by the Alberta Centre for Injury Control and Research, in 2009 34 per cent of trauma patients in Alberta hospitals tested positive for alcohol, with an average blood alcohol level double the legal limit. Of all booze-related Alberta fatalities deemed accidental, 82 per cent of the dead had a blood alcohol level over the legal limit.
“These problems have an enormous economic, personal and family burden on people. Absolutely, binge drinking is a public health problem,” Wild said.
Louis Francescutti, an emergency room doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, said every weekend his emergency room fills with new patients suffering the effects of binge drinking.
“As an emergency room doc, I can tell you on Friday and Saturday nights we know we’re going to have the consequences of binge drinking in the emergency department,” said Francescutti.
But despite the potentially serious side effects, including death, Francescutti says popular culture has made drinking to excess the norm, with stories of passing out or vomiting worn as a badge of honour.
“Unfortunately, it has become normalized within our society,” he said.
Both Wild and Francescutti believe education alone is not enough.
Wild said the only way to effectively curb binge drinking on a large scale is through government policy such as increasing taxes on alcohol or reducing the availability of alcohol.
Both agree direct intervention from front-line and family physicians could also be effective, with doctors asking about drinking habits proactively to curb any issues before they show up in an emergency ward.