New drinking guidelines in Canada were accompanied by a call for warning labels on alcohol bottles, and Nanaimo-Ladysmith’s MP has already created just such a motion.
Lisa Marie Barron, the NDP’s deputy critic for mental health and addictions, drafted a private member’s motion that was placed on notice last June, calling for a national warning label strategy for alcoholic products due to alcohol being “a major driver of morbidity and mortality in Canada” and a “significant, modifiable contributor to many diseases including cancers.”
The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction issued new guidance this week that recommends no more than two drinks per week, replacing previous guidelines of no more than two drinks per day. The new guidelines state that three to six drinks per week bring “moderate risk” and seven or more drinks per week bring “increasingly high risk.”
Barron worked in the addictions field before being elected to Parliament and said that work formed a basis for her work on the file federally.
“There’s a glamourization of alcohol consumption and I saw the impacts quite frequently first-hand while working in addictions, and the lack of knowledge around the health impacts of alcohol consumption – proven health implications…” she said. “The most frustrating part is that many people are unaware of these potential preventable and modifiable diseases associated with alcohol consumption.”
The MP held community consultation related to her notice of motion this past fall in Nanaimo and said one woman with whom she spoke said the new information might make her reconsider that second drink.
“I’m hearing from constituents their stories, their experiences with alcohol, their family members’ experiences with alcohol and how much they appreciate the work being done to bring this forward and ensure that we’re finally taking seriously the potential health concerns of alcohol consumption,” she said.
Barron’s motion on warning labels won’t be discussed in the House of Commons unless she raises it for debate the next time she has a chance to table private member’s business, which won’t be until spring at the earliest.
She has read research about different kinds of warning labels and their impacts and said there are “very specific” recommendations about size, colour and use of images. She said a pilot project on alcohol warning labels in the Yukon ended early due to industry pressure and said that’s one of the reasons why federal leadership is needed.
“This motion isn’t a judgment on alcohol consumption … People can make the decisions that are best for them with this information,” she said. “But it’s completely unacceptable that Canadians don’t have access to this information and the ways in which alcohol consumption really impacts their health and the direct links there.”
The drinking guidelines report, which noted that about three-quarters of Canadians drink alcohol, stated that “alcohol is a leading preventable cause of death, disability and social problems, including certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, unintentional injuries and violence.”
The CCSA report noted that its main focus was on health conditions resulting in death, and didn’t examine “intangible effects of alcohol use, including suffering related to adverse outcomes or social enjoyment from alcohol consumption.”
Dan Malleck, a Brock University health sciences professor and a medical historian specializing in drug and alcohol policy, called the report irresponsible and said its authors “cherry picked” data, considering thousands of studies but disregarding all but a few.
“They’ve narrowed the focus of their study to the point where they find 16 studies that show harm and lo and behold, there’s harm,” he said.
He said the report doesn’t consider any positive benefits to moderate alcohol consumption such as social aspects that can affect mental well-being. Alcohol, he said, is part of people’s lives in meaningful ways such as celebrations, get-togethers, or unwinding after a rough week.
“All of these things are important to our … biological, psychological and social health. The things that make us healthy are multi-dimensional,” he said. “But when we reduce it down to just a dose response and don’t consider all of that other stuff, it does kind of miss the point of alcohol to start with.”
Canada’s Council of Chief Medical Officers of Health issued a statement that noted that the guidelines are “a first step in raising awareness” and will need to be accompanied by supporting programs and policies that will lead to improved health outcomes.
“It is also important to recognize that the risk for alcohol-related harms is strongly influenced by a range of factors in our social, economic, and physical environments,” the council noted. “These factors can include the accessibility and affordability of alcohol, exposure to alcohol marketing, social and cultural norms around drinking, coping with loss of cultural identity, racism, stigma and discrimination as well as economic resources.”