With the opioid overdose crisis, concern about teens using electronic cigarettes and our fascination with the legalization of cannabis, our most dangerous legal drug continues to be ignored by Canadian policy-makers.
We have strong legislation and regulation governing tobacco and cannabis sales, marketing and labelling, but the federal government has been asleep at the wheel for years on alcohol policy. Meanwhile, some provincial governments are aggressively loosening restrictions and lowering prices.
From a public health and safety perspective, this makes absolutely no sense. In 2018, using a Health Canada-funded study, we estimated each year some 15,000 deaths, 90,000 hospital admissions and 240,000 years of life lost are directly attributable to alcohol use.
Along with impacts on productivity and crime, the annual economic toll of $15 billion was greater than that from either tobacco use or from cannabis, opioids and all illegal substances combined. On the other side of the ledger, federal and provincial governments collected less than $11 billion in revenues from alcohol in the same year.
Canadians kept in the dark
The World Health Organization has classified alcohol as a Class 1 carcinogen, along with asbestos and tobacco, for decades. However, surveys find that only one third of Canadians are aware of this risk.
Our attempt to study the value of placing this information on warning labels in government liquor stores in the Yukon was shut down in late 2017 following veiled legal threats from alcohol producers. The Yukon government backed down and the cancer labels were removed.
Since then, the federal government has taken no action to help inform consumers about the cancer risk from alcohol, to offer guidelines for low-risk drinking or even provide information that is required on all food and drink products — such as calorie content, serve sizes or nutritional information. This is despite the fact that another one of our recent studies found that Canadian drinkers consumed 11 per cent of their daily calories in the form of alcohol.
The federal Liberal government recently woke up to the fact they were losing a fortune in tax revenues by not adjusting alcohol excise tax rates each year to the cost of living.
In late 2017, despite strenuous opposition from industry groups, they passed legislation to ensure alcohol excise taxes were adjusted to keep up with the cost of living for the first time since 1986. Alcohol industry lobbyists have attempted to mislead the public by characterizing these small indexed rises as “tax hikes” when they are simply maintaining the value of these taxes at the same level.
In a soon-to-be-released report, we estimate that the federal government has lost at least $10.5 billion by failing to adjust alcohol taxes with inflation. As a result, alcohol consumption is now about four per cent higher, leading to over 300 extra preventable deaths and almost 4,000 preventable hospitalizations per year.
Death and (alcohol) taxes
While talking of taxes may cause one’s eyes to glaze over, the real-world implications are deadly. One yawning loophole in the tax system encourages the manufacture, sale and consumption of cheap coolers — such as a malt-based product with the perhaps appropriate name of FCKDUP that contributed to the tragic death of a 14-year-old girl last year. This product had an 11.9 per cent alcohol content, delivering more than four standard drinks in one 568-millilitre container, retailing at less than a dollar per standard drink.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, there was little discussion of the reason for this low price and hence attractiveness to teenagers: it was taxed at the same rate as beer without any regard for alcoholic strength because beer taxes in Canada are “flat” — they do not increase as alcohol content increases.
Time for an Alcohol Act
Doubtless political parties campaigning in our forthcoming federal election will make all manner of policy commitments for getting tough on vaping nicotine, which is associated with no known deaths in Canada. We’ve already seen various campaign promises being made on how to tackle the opioid overdose crisis. And while the death toll from this crisis is indeed grim, protecting Canadians’ health and safety would be at least as equally well-served by a comprehensive set of evidence-based strategies and laws to mitigate the more substantial but overlooked harms from alcohol.
As we recommended in our evaluation of federal alcohol policies earlier this year, a national strategy needs to be developed independently from alcohol industry interests to ensure consumers are informed about risks and harm reduction strategies, that prices reflect alcohol strength and advertising codes apply to the new digital media.
For too long, complacency and a strong industry voice has led to a lack of effective policies and supporting legislation around alcohol in Canada. Canadians deserve to be informed about alcohol’s risks and to have evidence-based regulations and laws to reduce these.
It’s time for our next federal government to step up with an Alcohol Act and a national strategy to reduce the harms from what continues to be our favourite, but most costly, recreational drug.