Andre Picard: We need to stop romanticizing alcohol

There has been, in recent months, intense attention paid to the devastation wrought by opioids and endless debate about the potential health impacts of legalizing marijuana.

Meanwhile, we continue to be willfully blind to the damage done by a deadly, damaging and commonly used drug: alcohol.

That opioids overdoses caused an estimated 2,000 deaths in Canada last year is front-page news, and rightfully so. The spike in mortality is troubling.

But alcohol kills more than 5,000 people annually, year in and year out. (And, of course, there’s tobacco, which kills 37,000 Canadians a year, but at least we discuss and act upon the health impacts of smoking.)

Alcohol is too often portrayed as good, harmless fun.

Yet a new report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows that 77,000 hospitalizations in Canada last year were entirely caused by alcohol – more than heart attacks. And that doesn’t include people treated in the ER for alcohol-related conditions and then released.

Alcohol kills and maims in a perversely diverse number of ways.

There are the acute problems such as alcohol poisoning (read: overdose), withdrawal and delirium. There are the long-term impacts such as cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, an increased risk of developing several cancers and damage to the fetus such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and exacerbation of mental illness. All told, alcohol negatively affects more than 200 health conditions.

Alcohol misuse fuels violence, sexual assault, suicide and traumatic injuries, and does immeasurable damage to families and relationships.

Impaired driving not only kills – 1,497 deaths last year, including 883 involving alcohol, according to MADD Canada – but it is the single most common criminal offence in Canada; 30 per cent of all criminal charges are related to alcohol abuse or misuse.

Needless to say, all this is costly.

Alcohol misuse cost the economy $14.6-billion – in lost productivity, direct health costs and enforcement. But note that this number is from 2002, the most recent year for which data is available; why we don’t routinely measure the health and economic impact of a drug used by 80 per cent of adults beggars belief.

Now, at this point in the litany of alcohol’s sins, the pot people will be chomping at the bit, claiming “cannabis never killed anyone.” Some even suggest that we would be better off if there were fewer drinkers and more tokers.


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