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Canada’s Alcohol Problem

Social drinking is on the rise in Canada. According to a study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Canadians drink 50 per cent more than the global average. Compound these numbers with the fact that alcohol is the third leading cause of disease and injury globally and it is no wonder that Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam is worried. However, what many might be surprised to learn is that Dr. Tam’s concerns lie not only in drinking, but specifically in the alarming rate at which heavy drinking in Canadian women is rising.

Sounding the Alarm

Dr. Tam’s concerns became the focus of a report on the state of public health for Canadians in 2018. While most of the country is concerned with the opioid crisis, Dr. Tam is worried that alcohol abuse is on the rise and requires serious consideration. Dr. Tam’s report notes that Canadians seem to be overlooking the harm alcohol consumption is causing. The high rates of alcohol for Canadians is growing, and studies are showing it is rising specifically for women. In fact, more women are dying as a result of alcohol abuse than men.

Understanding the Harm

According to the CAMH, as far back as 2010 alcohol was the cause of 5.5 percent of the burden of disease and injury in Canada. This measurement looks at many aspects of health, and is related to the premature death, and/or illness or injury caused by alcohol consumption that can lead to premature death. This can include injuries resulting from alcohol consumption which can include losing an organ or body part through alcohol related accidents. Alcohol related diseases such as cancers and liver function issues, in hand with traffic accidents are also major factors.

Females and Alcohol

Dr. Tam reported that from 2001 to 2017, there was a 26 percent increase in alcohol-attributed death for women. Men’s death rates increased by just five percent. As well females are hospitalized at a higher rate for alcohol abuse than males in the 10 to 19 age group. Dr. Tam says that although men are consuming alcohol at higher rates than women, the rapid increase in the rate women are drinking more heavily is very concerning. Although Dr. Tam is still undergoing research to find out what is at the root of this rise, she does believe it could be a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety.

Social Influences

Women are also exposed to more trauma in life according to Dr. Tam who notes issues such as sexual abuse and bullying as potential contributing factors. “Those underlying factors are important when you’re looking at prevention,” Dr. Tam said during an interview with CBC. Another major factor for women is social issues with drinking as an accepted presence in Western culture. Many television shows promote drinking as part of the everyday life of successful and attractive women who are drinking alcohol as a way to handle the stress in their lives. All of these factors point to alcohol consumption in women is related to stress.

Misconceptions About Alcohol

As well, according to Dr. Jürgen Rehm, study author and director of CAMH’s Social and Epidemiological Research Department, people are also not considering the alcohol levels they are consuming. There is a misconception that drinking a glass of wine is not as bad as having a whiskey. This adds to the confusion, as studies toting the benefits of red wine for heart health are misleading. Many people believe as long as they are drinking wine they are not at risk. Although there can be some benefits, one has to consider the long-term detrimental effects of too much alcohol consumption. Dr. Tam feels we have to “denormalize” drinking so that people see it is not a healthy choice.

Targeting Women

There has also been a growing trend for advertisers to target women according to Catherine Paradis, a senior researcher and policy analyst with the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. This has been steadily progressing since the 1990s. A recent trend in advertising includes selling wine as “mommy juice” on social media. Although she feels targeted marketing in itself is not necessarily wrong, where things become less appropriate is when marketers use the women’s liberation movement to advertise alcohol. This links drinking to men, and the equal rights of women to enjoy drinking in the interest of sexual equality. “… the alcohol industry has somehow managed to make us believe that, when it comes to alcohol, that should be sort of a measure of gender equality,” said Paradis in an interview with CBC. Dr. Tam also sees this equality challenge as an issue as women and men metabolize alcohol differently due to different water content and body enzymes.

Young Death Rallies Change

With the death of a 14-year-old girl following the consumption of an alcoholic beverage on her lunch break, the federal government is now involved in a conversation about binge drinking and females. The tragedy, which took place in Quebec, forced the Health Minister, Ginette Petitpas-Taylor to look into restricting the amount of alcohol that can be added to the sweetened alcoholic beverages that attract young girls. The beverage consumed by the teen contained 11.6% alcohol. Paradis meanwhile says, this is only the first step and that marketing also has to be addressed to make the drinks less appealing.

The Path of Tobacco

Dr. Tam agrees, as more companies are incorporating marketing strategies to target young women on social media. She feels we can make changes that will be effective, using tobacco as a guide. If we stop trivializing alcohol consumption and being up front about the dangers and risks associated with inappropriate drinking habits we will be better able to reduce consumption. It might seem like a big job to take on, however Canada was able to make a political commitment to handle the health-related issues of tobacco quite successfully. Dr. Tam – we can take the same path to reduce alcohol consumption with the right policies and educational measures in place.

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