The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed to us the things we see as essential: vaccines, toilet paper, and booze. When the pandemic first hit rumours spread quickly about the possible closure of liquor stores, which resulted in mass panic and long line ups. Alcohol sales through retail stores spiked during the first wave. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), one quarter of Canadians say they are drinking more at home because of the pandemic. Their reasons are varied: a lack of a regular schedule, stress and boredom.
Now may be a good opportunity for the federal government to take legislative action in the form of a federal alcohol act to address heavy drinking. This is legislation which could enshrine a harm reduction approach to alcohol that addresses outstanding issues related to advertising and labelling, access to alcohol, the affordability of the product and more.
The consumption of alcohol in moderation in safe social spaces is not the problem. Instead, it is heavy drinking which presents the most significant risks. Heavy drinking is defined by Canada’s low risk drinking guidelines as more than 10 drinks a week for women and 15 for men. A Nova Scotia municipal alcohol report sums up the issue well: “It’s not that we drink, it’s how we drink.” And how we drink is cause for concern.
The CCSA suggests that in Canada, 38 per cent of all healthcare costs in 2014 were attributable to alcohol abuse. The rate of hospitalizations in 2017 were higher for alcohol abuse than for heart attacks. Further, studies suggest alcohol makes us more vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19. In Canada, the financial costs attributable to alcohol use are higher than any other substance. Between 2015-2017, these costs amounted to roughly $16.6 billion dollars.
According to Statistics Canada, during COVID the proportion of Canadians who use cannabis has also increased, but at a much lower rate than alcohol. The use of tobacco products has also increased. But in the case of both tobacco and cannabis products, there is a legislative framework in place to address the public health concerns of these products. For example, there are warning labels on cigarette packages. There is no robust national public health approach concerning alcohol.
Alcohol policy during a pandemic
While Canada’s federal and provincial governments have yet to act, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends tightening alcohol regulations during COVID-19 – a time when many are stressed, anxious and stretched. Policies such as increasing excise taxes, restricting access and banning advertising, promotions and sponsorships are considered effective in reducing the alcohol-attributable burden as they are cost-effective and easy to implement. As well, organizations concerned with equity and substance use like the CCSA and Homeless Hub advocate for a harm reduction approach, recognizing that abstinence may be neither realistic or desirable for some users.
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necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ‘FASD Prevention Conversation, A Shared Responsibility Project’, its stakeholders, and/or funders.