Better policies could reduce harms of alcohol

- Amanda Farrell-Low

UVic researcher Tim Stockwell. Photo: Jonathan Woods.

Two new studies are sobering reminders of the shortcomings in Canada’s alcohol policies

Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial governments could be doing a much better job at implementing policies that reduce alcohol-related harms, according to new reports from the UVic’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR).

The Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation project, led by researchers at CISUR and Toronto’s Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH), issued two reports in late February—one each on provincial and federal policies. The team looked at 11 different types of alcohol policy including availability, pricing and taxation, and health and safety messaging. They then developed gold-standard best practices based on extensive international research, then compared these best practices against what Canada’s provincial, territorial and federal governments had in place as of 2017. Researchers found that Canadian provinces and territories collectively achieved less than half (44 per cent) of their potential to reduce alcohol-related harm.

When scored against the best current practices observed in Canada in 2017, the two jurisdictions with the highest scores were Ontario (64 per cent) and BC (58 per cent). However, the assessments were done before Ontario introduced new deregulatory changes to alcohol policy, including the infamous “buck-a-beer” program.

“Alcohol has surpassed tobacco in terms of being the most costly drug in Canada when it comes to harms,” says CISUR’s Tim Stockwell, the reports’ primary investigator. “In recent years, we have also seen reductions in the overall effectiveness of alcohol policies in Canada. The two are absolutely linked.”

Key recommendations for the provinces and territories include:

  • introduce a comprehensive minimum price of $1.75 per standard drink for liquor store sales and $3.50 per standard drink for bars and restaurants, indexed annually to the cost of living;
  • increase enforcement of impaired driving using civil penalties, especially in the territories;
  • introduce independent monitoring of alcohol promotions, including both social and other media;
  • introduce Risk Based Licensing Programs to target high-risk bars and clubs which generate the most impaired driving and violent incidents; and
  • develop comprehensive, well-resourced and evaluated strategies to coordinate the implementation of evidence-based strategies.

But the reports aren’t all bad news. There are many areas where jurisdictions are doing well: Manitoba set alcohol prices according to alcohol content; Saskatchewan and Quebec placed upper limits on the density of alcohol outlets; and BC implemented an impaired-driving roadside suspension program.

“If we were to assemble an alcohol policy based on all the best practices currently in place in the country, it would score 87 per cent, or an A Grade,” says Stockwell. “This shows that these recommendations are achievable in Canada today, and these reports offer practical and feasible steps for government and other agencies to get there.”

For more details on the project, visit the Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation (CAPE) web page.


In this story

Keywords: alcohol, health, Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, CISUR

People: Tim Stockwell

Publication: The Ring

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