EDITORIAL: The real cost of alcohol

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By Dr. Kit Young Hoon,

Northern Health Unit Medical Oficer of Health

Would it shock you if you found out tobacco use costs the Canadian healthcare system over a billion dollars a year? Well, the cost is actually much higher; closer to $17-billion. Right behind tobacco we find alcohol. According to the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, alcohol misuse costs the system about $14-billion annually.

As a society we have cracked down on smoking. We ban tobacco companies from event sponsorships, advertising and marketing their products towards children. We insist on frightening images and messaging on cigarette packaging.

Meanwhile we look the other way when it comes to alcohol. We feel differently about alcohol; it’s a ‘normal’ part of our society. Teenagers still consider it a badge of honour when their friends recount how many cans of beer they managed to down at the weekend party. Ads on TV make alcohol consumption look fun and sexy. And in Ontario, alcohol is being made more convenient to buy through grocery stores and other locations.

Why do we feel so differently about alcohol use?

Too much alcohol over the long term can increase the risk for a variety of illnesses including liver disease, cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Too much alcohol over a short period of time can lead to increased risky behavior and intoxication. In Northwestern Ontario, about 3 in 5 people drink above the low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines. Underage drinking and drinking during pregnancy is higher than the Ontario average meaning many individuals may experience harms from alcohol. Rates of emergency room visits related to alcohol misuse for Northwestern Ontario are over 5 times as high as the rest of the province. 

Too much alcohol affects the person drinking as well as their family, friends and community. Excessive alcohol use can have a negative impact on relationships, may affect how a family functions, and can reduce workplace productivity. Risky behavior can lead to accidents and injury, unsafe sex, and increased violence and crime.

A survey of those living in Northwestern Ontario has identified that people know the harms from alcohol but generally accept alcohol misuse. Why would alcohol misuse be acceptable when it is known to be harmful? How do we talk about alcohol? What can we say that lets other people know that it is NOT OK to drink too much?

We can talk about controlling alcohol sales. Research indicates an effective way to reduce the harms of alcohol misuse on a community is to have reasonable controls on the sale of alcohol. Controlling the number of places selling alcohol and hours of operation can reduce the amount people drink and the harms on the community. A community panel with representatives from across our region recommended further work on such policies and supported having alcohol-free events. Other controls include pricing that is high enough to deter excessive drinking and servers that are appropriately trained to avoid overserving.

And yes, such initiatives make buying alcohol less convenient and more costly. But which is more important: the convenience of having alcohol sales at many locations, for longer hours with cheaper prices? High sales of alcohol to increase revenue at fundraisers or businesses? OR avoiding diseases such as cancer and heart disease; decreasing crime, violence, accidents and injury; and, reducing a major burden on your health care system?

Alcohol misuse is a substantial community health problem for Northwestern Ontario. Tackling it requires a community discussion on how we talk about alcohol misuse and controlling the sale of alcohol. Are you ready to talk?

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