CARBC research shows how province can improve alcohol-related policies

- Mitch Wright

British Columbia comes in second among Canadian provinces for policies aimed at reducing alcohol-related harms and costs, but the impressive ranking belies the fact even the national leaders are nowhere near achieving an ideal score.

In earning the ranking, BC achieved just 53 per cent of a perfect score. It also lags at or near the bottom in two of the most important policy categories, although the province does rank first in five categories and second in two others.

The findings are included in research from the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research, which released its summary report Reducing Alcohol-Related Harms and Costs in British Columbia, just as the province announced on Aug. 6 it will undertake a major review of liquor licensing laws this fall.

The report compares the 10 provinces in 10 policy dimensions deemed most effective in achieving public health and safety benefits. The research highlights current policy strengths in BC and offers recommendations to turn unrealized potential into actual gains.

BC ranks ninth and 10th in the two most important policy categories—pricing and regulatory controls. The contradiction of a low overall score earning such a high ranking also indicates there are substantial opportunities for BC and all provinces to take further action.

“Our study shows that BC is doing many things right, but could be doing much, much better,” says Kara Thompson, a psychology doctoral candidate who co-authored the report while working with CARBC director Tim Stockwell. “The fact that we are at or near the bottom in the two more important policy areas is significant. That is where the province can and should be focusing attention to achieve the most impact to reduce alcohol-related harms and costs.”

Specific measures suggested for BC to address its weakness in pricing and regulatory control policies include: increasing minimum prices to $1.50 per standard drink; adjust alcohol prices to keep pace with inflation; placing restrictions on discounted alcohol sold below minimum price; adjusting prices for alcohol content to make higher strength products more expensive; reducing access to alcohol through channels such as online sales or delivery services; and increasing spending on social responsibility messaging.

“The provincial government’s plan to review liquor licensing is timely and necessary,” says Thompson. “What we’ve shown in highlighting these strengths and weakness in alcohol policies is that there is still considerable room to do more, especially in the areas of pricing and control. Implementing these recommendations would be a significant leap toward improving the balance between public access and better protecting public health.”

The CARBC comparison of BC alcohol policies with those of other provinces uses results from a comprehensive national study funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and builds on a model implemented by MADD Canada. The national study was led by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Ontario in collaboration with a Canada-wide network of alcohol and health experts, including from CARBC.

The 10 policy dimensions included in the assessment are based on rigorous systematic reviews of the effectiveness of alcohol-prevention efforts.

BC ranks first in policy dimensions on drinking and driving, marketing and advertising, legal drinking age and server training, and is also the only province to earn a perfect score in any category, which it achieved for its policies on screening, referrals and brief interventions. BC also ranked second for the physical availability of alcohol and for its provincial alcohol strategy.

Thompson notes that despite those highlights, alcohol consumption in BC has been above the national average for the past decade, and both consumption levels and the rate of hospitalizations for alcohol-related conditions have increased since 2002. And with BC ranked second while achieving just 53 per cent of the ideal score, its clear even those provinces leading the way have a lot more work to do, she says.

Some other recommendations for improvement in BC’s alcohol-related policies include: reducing hours for on- and off-premise establishments; implementing remaining drinking and driving countermeasures recommended by MADD Canada; restricting quantity of alcohol advertisements; consideration of increasing legal drinking age to 21; improving server training; developing an alcohol-specific provincial strategy; and implementing mandatory warning labels on alcoholic beverage packaging.

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Keywords: Centre for Addictions Research of BC, alcohol, addiction, research

People: Kara Thompson

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