Alcohol sends more Canadians to hospital than heart attacks: report



More Canadians were hospitalized due to alcohol than for heart attacks last year, according to a new report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

In 2015-16, about 77,000 hospitalizations in Canada were entirely caused by alcohol, compared with about 75,000 for heart attacks.

The organization that compiles and analyzes health statistics said it is looking at alcohol harm because it is “a serious and growing concern, both in Canada and around the world.”

It is also costly, with economic costs estimated at more than $14 billion in 2002, $3.3 billion of which were direct health costs, according to the report titled Alcohol Harm in Canada.

Hospitalization rates due to alcohol — for mental physical conditions ranging from alcohol withdrawal to cirrhosis of the liver and acute pancreatitis — vary across the country. Remote, rural and northern regions having the highest rates.

In the Champlain region, including Ottawa, rates are below the national average, but higher than the Toronto and Mississauga regions. In Champlain, there were 166 hospitalizations per 100,000 people last year, compared to the national average of 239.

In Ontario, the North West LHIN, which includes Thunder Bay, rates were 603 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, more than twice the national average, and in the Northwest Territories hospitalization rates for alcohol were 1,315 per 100,000 people — by far, the highest in the country.

One of the reasons for the focus on alcohol harms, said Jean Harvey, who is director of the Canadian Population Health Initiative at CIHI, is that alcohol is so pervasive in society. About 80 per cent of people drink.

A comprehensive strategy aimed at reducing alcohol consumption, similar to anti-smoking efforts, could help reduce alcohol harm.

Last year, Ottawa Public Health issued a major report on alcohol use as a way of highlighting the potential harms it can do. The report, called Let’s Continue the Conversation, found that 83 per cent of adults in Ottawa drink alcohol. It also found that 22 per cent of adults exceeded the recommended consumption limits in 2013-2014 and 44 per cent of young adults reported heavy drinking in the previous year.

Excessive alcohol consumption is a risk factor for a number of illnesses, including cancer. CIHI will track rates of hospitalization caused by alcohol over time.

Although CIHI looked at hospitalizations directly caused by alcohol, trauma surgeons see many more patients requiring treatment for injuries associated with alcohol use, said Dr. Jacinthe Lampron, medical trauma director at The Ottawa Hospital.

Despite public campaigns, the hospital still sees patients with injuries that result from drunk driving as well as other injuries related to impairment, she said, including ATV injuries, boating injuries, falls and more.

More than 50 per cent of people being treated for trauma have some form of impairment, she said. And numbers are highest in the summer. “We call it trauma season.”

Among other things, it found that men over the age of 20 are more likely to be hospitalized for conditions entirely caused by alcohol than women. These gender differences mirror drinking patterns.

Among children between 10 and 19, however, more girls than boys are hospitalized for alcohol.

Dr. Sinthuja Suntharalingam, child and adolescent psychiatrist at CHEO, noted that females are more predisposed to anxiety and depression during adolescence than males.

“We have more females admitted for mental health reasons.” That likely translates to more young females self medicating with alcohol and other substances, she said.

Across Canada, an average of six children and youth were hospitalized per day due to alcohol.

At CHEO, alcohol harm as a reason for hospitalization among children is declining, she said, with cannabis and opioid use on the rise.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse published Canada’s low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines to help reduce long-term health risks from alcohol, including chronic illnesses such as cancer, liver cirrhosis, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In 2015, there were 5,082 alcohol-attributable deaths in Canada, according to a recent study.

Health officials advise no more than 10 drinks a week for women, with no more than two drinks a day at most, and 15 drinks a week for men, with no more than three drinks a day.

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