Canada is a country of hosers, eh, and we love our beer. How much do we love it? We’re about to find out as we come to terms with strict new drinking guidelines.
This week, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction released new guidance on alcohol and health, and those who consume more than two drinks a week are now said to be at risk of negative health outcomes. It’s a major departure from the guidelines set a decade ago, when we were told up to two drinks per day was low-risk. It’s also out of alignment with guidelines in the U.S., which recommends no more than two drinks per day for men and one for women, and the U.K., which recommends no more than 14 drinks per week.
The reasons for Canada’s new guidance, says the CCSA, are that alcohol’s link to at least seven types of cancer is often unknown or overlooked, it is a risk factor in most types of cardiovascular disease, it is a main cause of liver disease, and it is associated with violent and aggressive behaviour.
“Overwhelming evidence confirms that when it comes to drinking alcohol, less consumption means less risk of harm from alcohol,” the report noted.
The guidelines aren’t rules, of course, and each of us can determine what sort of risks we want to take. But Canada’s chief public medical health officers have already accepted the findings and stated that next steps include public programs and policies.
As I was writing a related news article on this topic, I accessed a couple of the report’s accompanying health studies, but the medical jargon made them hard to understand. It made me ask, is this one of those instances where we’re better off just trusting the science?
Dan Malleck, a health sciences professor at Brock University and a medical historian specializing in drug and alcohol policy, said Canada’s new guidelines have been met with skepticism. He pointed out that of 6,000 studies up for consideration, only 16 contributed to the findings, and said risk versus likelihood isn’t well-communicated. He suggested there’s obfuscation and even fear-mongering in the report.
“It shows a certain manipulation of the public for what seems to be a fairly neo-prohibitionist or neo-temperance end … encouraging people and governments to restrict it as much as possible,” Malleck said. “The problem with that is I think most people will agree that alcohol has a positive place in their life and most people drink it responsibly.”
I’m inclined to trust the report’s studies and acknowledge the health risks as presented. I did notice, though, that the report states that its main focus is on health conditions resulting in death. Well, there are a whole bunch of positives and negatives associated with drinking that don’t have anything to do with death. If we’re looking for guidelines on how to drink and not die, then sure, one or two drinks a week sounds like the safest bet. But it leaves out hard-to-measure impacts on mental health and well-being, for good or ill.
“I bring a bottle of wine to my friend’s house at a party. We sit and talk about work over a drink, we celebrate various occasions, we toast at weddings, all of these things. It’s important. It has a place,” said Malleck. “It’s not going to kill us and if it does, at least it’s been a nice journey and that, I think, is something that’s missed in this research.”
More than three-quarters of Canadian adults drink, so cutting back on our collective drinking seven-fold would come with a cultural shift. I don’t know if two drinks a week will be enough to qualify us as hosers anymore. But I’m pretty sure that Canadian people, whether tipsy or teetotallers, will have plenty of endearing character traits regardless.
Greg Sakaki is the editor of the Nanaimo News Bulletin.
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