Canadian alcohol policy gets failing grade

A photo of various bottles of alcohol on shelves
A new CISUR-led report says Canadian provincial, territorial and federal governments could drastically improve their alcohol policy.

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 University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR). 

The Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation (CAPE) project, led by researchers at CISUR and Toronto’s Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH), issued two reports today, one focusing on provincial and territorial policies and one on federal policy. 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 and psychology professor at UVic. “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.” 

The reports build on a similar exercise CISUR and CAMH undertook in 2013, which evaluated alcohol policies in Canada’s provinces as of 2012. 

“Both in 2012 and in 2017 the overall scores were below 50 per cent of ideal, and even somewhat lower in 2017,” says Norman Giesbrecht, a Scientist Emeritus with CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research who led the 2013 project and is a co-principal investigator on the current study. “Since 2012, six provinces have had lower scores, one no change, and three had higher scores. There is much work to do, and jurisdictions can learn from each other, and implement exemplary and effective alcohol policies.” 

In the national policy review, researchers concluded that the federal government is exercising just over one third (38 per cent) of its potential to reduce alcohol-related harm through the implementation of effective policy as of mid-2018. Some of the key recommendations for improvement include:

For more details on the project, visit

The CAPE project is funded by Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Read the full UVic media release.

Media contacts:

Tim Stockwell (Director, CISUR) at 250-472-5445 or

Norman Giesbrecht (CAMH) at 416-595-6015 or 

Amanda Farrell-Low (Communications Officer, CISUR) at 250-472-5445 or


A press kit containing high-resolution photos of Tim Stockwell is available on Dropbox. 

*To participate in a webinar with Tim Stockwell, Norman Geisbrecht and other researchers on Wednesday, February 20 (full webinar at 10AM PST, media summary at 11AM PST) RSVP via Eventbrite.