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Dramatic shift in alcohol consumption guidelines could undermine the ultimate goal of harm reduction

More than 100 years ago temperance organizations promoting total abstention from alcohol and ultimately prohibition were a force to be reckoned with in Canada. Luckily for Canadians, sanity ultimately won out and alcohol was legalized in all provinces in the 1920s. Temperance societies may now seem like a thing of the past but there is a growing movement of lobby groups carrying the same banner under a different name.

Take, for example, the Canadian Centre for Substance use and Addiction (CCSA). Just this month it released a new report on alcohol that concluded that consuming more than two alcoholic beverages per week could seriously jeopardize your health. Yes, according to the CCSA, anything more than two beers in a seven-day period is cause for concern.

The CCSA’s new proposed alcohol guidelines are a radical departure from existing guidelines, which state that adults can consume upwards of 15 drinks per week for men and 10 drinks per week for women without serious danger to their health. Based on pre-pandemic data, upwards of 85 per cent of Canadian drinkers consume responsibly, according to these guidelines. Fifteen per cent of drinkers do not, however, and their problem drinking is obviously cause for concern.

The CCSA’s drastically lower guidelines for alcohol consumption will target many more than the 15 per cent of drinkers who regularly exceed the current standards. In terms of realistic public outcomes, it would be far better to focus on the relatively small number of people who struggle with serious alcohol abuse rather than to shift the goalposts so much that virtually all alcohol consumers in Canada become problem drinkers overnight.

In fact, shifting the standard so dramatically could undermine the ultimate goal of harm reduction: guidelines so divorced from the everyday experience of Canadians likely will be ignored by alcohol consumers across the country.

Another CCSA suggestion is a new “standard drink” label for alcohol. Different types of alcoholic beverage would carry labeling indicating how many such standard drinks were in each container. At first glance, this may seem to make sense, especially if the pandemic has warped many consumers’ views of what qualifies as one drink.

On the other hand, a drink’s impact will vary from person to person and situation to situation. Even for the same individual, alcohol’s impact can vary depending on how tired they are, their hydration or whether they have eaten recently. A standardized drink metric might well provide many drinkers with a false sense of security, especially regarding impaired driving. Consumers might believe that consuming two drinks at a bar leaves them able to drive when in fact the impact of those two drinks varies significantly depending on circumstances. Moreover, alcohol sold in Canada already indicates the volume and percentage of alcohol, which are clearly defined scientific metrics, on the bottle.

Beyond the merits of CCSA’s recommendations, there are obvious problems with the policy model in which government funds organizations whose purpose is to lobby government for policy changes. The CCSA is almost entirely funded by the federal government. How strange it is, in this post-Prohibition age, that the government funds a group whose mission is to discourage even moderate alcohol consumption. As Professor Sylvain Charlebois has pointed out, it’s like giving vegan organization PETA money to do a report on beef consumption in Canada. There’s not much suspense regarding what the report will say.

We know that the pandemic — specifically being home-bound for the better part of two years — shifted Canadians’ patterns of alcohol consumption. But the response to a 100-year pandemic is hardly justification for caving in to the new temperance lobby. Expanding the nanny state and infantilizing responsible drinkers is not the answer to any problem.

Originally published here

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