Let's take off our beer goggles and look closer at the prospect of selling beer in 450 Ontario grocery stores over the next decade. At first blush, it is an attractive proposition. Ontario's 2015 budget sells this blind date as a way to maximize returns to the province, increase competition to "incent innovation," and create a "fairer, more consumer-friendly retail service." The Premier's office describes it as "the biggest change since the repeal of prohibition."

But when beer goggles wear off, we sometimes discover our new partner might not have the same qualities so evident the night before. In the light of day, it's time for some sober reflection on whether increasing access and visibility of alcohol is a good idea.

Although legal and commonly used in Canada, alcohol is still a drug with public health consequences for individuals, families, and communities. The World Health Organization attributes 3.3 million deaths globally each year to alcohol consumption and recognizes it as a component cause of more than 200 disease and injury conditions.

Cancer Care Ontario reminds us that alcoholic beverages, including beer, are carcinogenic and that there is "no clear safe limit to prevent an increased risk of cancer." The potential health benefits of low doses of alcohol for those in their mid 40s and beyond also come with health risks. One drink per day has been shown to decrease risk of heart disease and diabetes, but even one drink daily increases the risk of death from liver cirrhosis by 26 per cent for men and 139 per cent for women.

While many Ontarians consume alcohol without harm, alcohol use is a major factor contributing to health, social, and economic losses. These include motor vehicle crashes, suicide, domestic violence, physical and sexual assault, verbal abuse, and decreased quality of life from public intoxication, property damage, and vandalism. In 2002, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse estimated that alcohol cost Canada $14.6 billion annually — including $3.1 billion for direct enforcement costs, $3.3 billion for direct health-care costs, and $7.1 billion in lost productivity due to premature death and disability.

Harm reduction strategies for alcohol, such as the legal drinking age and alcohol control systems, often fall short. Scientists, including those from the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health, the University of Toronto and MADD Canada, have created a scorecard to grade the implementation of these promising practices. The national average falls below 50 per cent, with the leading province, Ontario, at just under 60 per cent.

International and Canadian studies have shown that alcohol distribution and retailing practices that act to increase average alcohol consumption also increased alcohol-related fatality rates, while practices that lower average alcohol consumption rates reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths. Swedish researchers modelled what would happen if they replaced the country's retail alcohol monopoly system — similar to Ontario's — with various private license systems. The most conservative estimates found this would increase alcohol consumption by 17 per cent. This, in turn, would cause an additional 770 deaths, 8,500 assaults, 2,700 drinking driving offences, and 4.5 million sick days per year — in a country with a population one-third that of Canada's.

Ontario's current system for alcohol sales balances access with social responsibility. Within Canada, only New Brunswick has lower per capita alcohol sales than Ontario. That's why the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario (RNAO) urges the province to rethink easier access to alcohol.

Rather than normalizing alcohol sales like any other commodity, the province should be protecting the health and well-being of Ontarians and their communities. Instead of seeking advice from market forces that stand to profit from these changes, the province should be strengthening social responsibility by heeding the evidence from public health practitioners and their organizations, including the Canadian Public Health Association, Ontario Public Health Association, Association of Local Public Health Agencies, and CAMH. And that means putting evidence-informed public policy ahead of politics, and taking off the beer goggles. We can't afford to wait for tomorrow morning.  

Source: The Hamilton Spectator


Last updated on: 2015-08-18 | Link to this post