How much do Canadians lowball their drinking?

How much do we lowball the consumption of alcohol, our favourite recreational drug? A lot, as it turns out. It’s common knowledge that most of us downplay how much we drink in a given year. The World Health Organization already compensates for this by adding as much as 30 per cent to self-reported statistics on alcohol consumption. But even this is too low.

A new study published in the journal Addiction by the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research (CARBC) shows that people under-report their alcohol consumption in national health surveys by 50 to 75 per cent, depending on age and beverage.

Why does this matter? Surveys of alcohol consumption are a crucial part of provincial, national and international estimates of the burden of disease and injury caused by alcohol. Dr. Tim Stockwell, CARBC’s director and lead author of the study, says that when we create policy based on a gross underestimation of alcohol consumption, it’s easier for society to sweep many of the associated risks under the carpet. "Bringing more accurate data to the table means a whole raft of effective policy measures need to be considered more seriously. The urgency is greater," he says.

National sales figures show that for every Canadian over the age of 15, an amount of alcohol equal to 480 bottles of beer, 91 bottles of wine or 27 bottles of spirits is sold. But when traditional surveys asked how much respondents drank in the past year, numbers came nowhere near this amount. When, in 2008-10, Health Canada Alcohol and Drug Use surveyors also asked another questionhow much respondents drank the day before their phone interviewthey got a very different set of numbers.

To get a more accurate picture of what was being consumed, and by whom, CARBC researchers combined the two different responses and compared it with national sales data. One of the major findings: "Low-risk" drinkers and those under 24 years of age were underestimating their consumption the mostby as much as 75 per cent. This study describes a new method to correct for these large underestimates about how much we drink and the related costs.

Alcohol Under Reporting