Alcohol is killing Canadians, so why are we still drinking?
Most of us are aware of the commonly held belief that drinking wine is good for your heart, but few of us understand the serious dangers of drinking alcohol — even when it’s just one glass.
According to a recent global report, no amount of alcohol is safe to drink. In fact, the study found that any possible benefit of light drinking — including reducing heart disease — is outweighed by the combined health risks associated with alcohol.
What’s more, the report found that alcohol was the leading risk factor for disease and premature death in men and women between the ages of 15 and 49 across the world in 2016. Other research found the economic cost of alcohol-related harm across Canada is $14.6 billion per year.
So if data shows that drinking is killing us — literally — what is it going to take for Canadians to cut back, or stop drinking altogether?
According to Dr. Catherine Paradis, the lead alcohol expert at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, we need to talk more honestly and openly about the reality of drinking.
“Alcohol literacy in our population is extremely low,” Paradis told Global News. “According to some data we have, no more than 20 per cent of the population is aware that alcohol can cause seven different types of cancer.”
Why are Canadians in the dark when it comes to drinking?
Paradis said that alcohol companies have largely affected how much Canadians know about drinking-related health risks. The lobbying efforts of the alcohol industry has disrupted health studies, and even impacted warning labels.
A recent example of this was when the Yukon Liquor Corp. lobbied the government to stop cancer warnings from appearing on alcohol bottles, even though health researchers said they should be there.
Another reason our views on booze are skewed is because the alcohol industry wants people to believe that drinking can have health benefits.
“The alcohol industry was extremely aggressive when those results came out that [said] moderate drinking could be good for your heart,” Paradis said. “They have a lot of money to invest in alcohol advertising and promotion, so they were certain to get that message across.”
The lobbying efforts and marketing tactics of alcohol companies means that the negative impact drinking has on our health is often buried or disputed.
“Alcohol can have all sorts of consequences — financially, professionally, personally — when you drink too much,” Paradis said. “The consequences are not just [related] to health.”
What alcohol does to our bodies
Alcohol is a carcinogen, and research shows drinking can cause cancer. According to the American National Cancer Institute, studies shows that the “more alcohol a person drinks — particularly the more alcohol a person drinks regularly over time — the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer.” Canadian studies have shown the same.
Given the fact that 78 per cent of Canadians in 2017 reported consuming an alcoholic beverage in the past year — and 21 per cent of those drinkers were at risk for chronic effects — it’s important that people are aware of health repercussions.
“There’s a lot of chronic disease associated with long-term consumption of alcohol, including different types of cancer like breast cancer and colon cancer,” Paradis said. “When we think about the long-term health effects of alcohol, we think of chronic disease.”
Some of these illnesses include diabetes, liver cirrhosis, hypertension and stroke.
There are also short-term health effects, including car accidents, alcohol poisoning, injuries and violent episodes, Paradis said.
What needs to happen for Canadians to better understand health risks?
Paradis said that the government needs to step in and ensure that warnings are placed on alcohol bottles so that Canadians are aware of what they’re consuming. She said labels should also include how many standard drinks are inside a bottle to help prevent over-consumption.
Another thing that Paradis says needs to change is the influence alcohol companies have over policy.
“Health Canada should think about enforcing comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising, sponsorship and promotion, and special attention should be paid to the web, because right now the web is completely unregulated,” she said.
“It’s the Wild West when it comes to alcohol advertising.”
If you’re going to drink, how much is an appropriate amount?
Drinking is a large aspect of many cultures, and a common part of socializing and celebratory events. Paradis says that if Canadians are going to consume alcohol, it’s best to follow the country’s low-risk drinking guidelines.
“According to those guidelines, to reduce your risk of long-term effects, men should never take more than three drinks per occasion, and no more than 15 per week,” she said.
“For women, it’s two per day and 10 per week. That means you need to have at least two days of abstinence a week, and you can’t have 10 drinks on a Saturday.”
That being said, it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes people drink more than intended. While the low-risk guidelines indicate best practices around regular alcohol consumption, the most you should ever drink in one day is only slightly higher.
“To reduce your risk of accident and injury, it is recommended that men should never have more than four [drinks] per occasion, and women should never exceed three drinks.”
With a file from Katie Dangerfield
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