Two weeks ago, at the very nice time of 4:20 AM, I polished off my last bottle of gin. Hopefully ever.
Overconsumption of alcohol has long been a problem for me. Last year, I was spending obscene money on alcohol—anywhere between $7 and $15 a day, depending on where and what I was drinking—and half-hearted efforts to lose a bit of weight were being seriously undermined by the sheer number of empty calories I was drinking. Plus, waking up hungover on more days than not wasn't exactly a great feeling.
A handy app on my phone tells me that in the short time since quitting near-daily binge drinking, I’ve saved close to $100. But a series of withdrawal syndromes—including vivid nightmares, extreme fatigue, and mood swings—led me to looking closer at the actual health impacts of regular alcohol consumption.
It’s not like there isn’t copious amounts of research out there: I’d just never taken the time to look it up. Perhaps I was afraid of what I would find.
I should have been.
One would think that governments, which both regulate and derive considerable tax revenue from the alcohol industry, would properly inform the public of health risks. As it turns out, they've largely abdicated the role, leaving alcohol producers to set the terms.
“The government has more liability than the liquor industry in not informing consumers,” said Timothy Stockwell, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and psychology prof at the University of Victoria, said in an interview with VICE Canada. “One day it will happen that citizens, as they did with tobacco, will sue Canadian governments for not requiring that they are informed about real proven risks to their health and well-being.”
Canadians spent $22.1 billion on alcohol last year. It killed 5,082 Canadians in 2015. In total, some 77,000 people were hospitalized because of drinking in 2016—liver cirrhosis, withdrawal, alcohol use disorder, and much more—which was even more than from heart attacks. Over 200 diseases and conditions are linked to drinking, including major depression, strokes, heart disease. When it comes to cancer prevention, there isn’t considered to be any “safe limit” of alcohol consumption.
According to a 2010 study by legendary neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt, alcohol abuse is more harmful to the user and society than every other major drug including heroin and crack cocaine. Such impacts often manifest far slower than other overdoses, yet they’re still the direct result of chronic drug abuse.
My ignorance on the harms wasn’t particularly anomalous. Stockwell said that only 25 percent of drinkers in most of Canada are aware of alcohol’s relationship to cancer or low-risk drinking guidelines (10 drinks a week for women with no more than three drinks in a single session, 15 drinks a week for men with no more than four drinks at a time—and two “rest days” per week).
“A lot of the time, people just don’t know what the actual harms of alcohol are, so a lot of the time they hear bits here and there but don’t actually know how concrete the evidence is around alcohol,” added Jenna Valleriani, strategic advisor for the Canadian Students For Sensible Drug Policy and an expert on cannabis policy, in an interview with VICE Canada.
According to experts, this is almost entirely because of lax policy decisions by Canadian governments—including a failure to require tobacco-like warning stickers on bottles and cans, or embark on a nationwide negative marketing campaign, or restricting how the alcohol industry can advertise. But when you make $6.1 billion a year from something, perhaps you’re a little less inclined to criticize it.
Ann Dowsett Johnston, journalist and author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, said in an interview with VICE Canada that there are three main factors that influence how people drink: marketing, pricing and accessibility. Each of the policies vary a great deal from province to province. But Stockwell said that in order to implement something like minimum pricing linked to alcohol strength—which saw a 10 percent increase in price result in a 22 percent decline in high-strength beer purchases during a 2012 study—the public needs to have a very solid awareness of health risks.
Warning stickers on bottles and cans, like the ones on cigarette packs, are a great start from a harm reduction point of view; while there’s still not a clear link established between increased knowledge and quitting, it can initiate a higher rate of intention to quit—an important first step in the process.
But that’s based on research about the US warning label system, which Stockwell said is “pretty moot because the labels are so bad.” First introduced in 1988, the Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act requires a small black and white label that informs users of risks of impaired drinking and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: facts that most people know.
So for the first time in the world, Stockwell’s institute and Public Health Ontario collaborated in late November to apply colourful, well-positioned and informative stickers on all bottles and cans in a liquor store in Whitehorse, Yukon. The stickers included graphics that informed users of the proven relationship between alcohol and cancer, as well as the aforementioned low-risk drinking guidelines.
But only a month later, the Yukon government suspended the study due to pressures from the alcohol industry, which included allegations of defamation.
“We’ve been criticized for not consulting with the industry,” Stockwell said. “Well, we knew this is how they would behave. Our study wouldn’t have even got off the drawing board if we’d consulted with them. They would have immediately gone to all the relevant ministers and there would be threats immediately. They wouldn’t have even considered our project.”
Those same forces help maintain what critics describe as incredibly weak and voluntary regulations on alcohol advertising—a situation well parodied in a 2014 South Park episode. And Valleriani said that alcohol marketing and licensing is getting even more lax as Canada gets closer to legalizing cannabis, pointing to massive billboards on major Toronto streets, new LCBO’s “pop-up stores” and Toronto’s recent “A Very Mommy Wine Festival” as examples.
“If anyone ever tried to do a ‘Cannabis Mom TO,’ there would be a major outcry,” Valleriani said. “Everybody enjoys a pint or a glass of wine here and there. Because of that, we just can’t really see alcohol for what it is. As cannabis is being legalized, this could really provide us an opportunity to step back and look at about how we think about alcohol. And maybe it’s time to be a little more restrictive about alcohol because of its known health harms.”
Ultimately, it may require a fundamental undoing of what Johnston deems an “alcogenic” or “alcocentric” culture, in which many of us can’t imagine relaxing, celebrating or having any fun at all without the “social lubricant” of drinking. Johnston said that navigating a social life without alcohol is indeed a skill to be learned. But given the slow and progressive nature of alcohol abuse, she thinks it’s well worth the effort and can to a whole new world of self-knowing and self-respect.
“I really don’t believe in fear-mongering and I’m concerned about being seen as a prohibitionist,” she said. “But I do believe that if we become more open to the dialogue about alcohol and the role it plays in our lives, we would benefit as a society.”
Remember that 2010 study that concluded alcohol was the most dangerous drug when harms to user and society are combined? Well, it just so happens that three of the least harmful drugs are mushrooms, LSD and MDMA.
We’re certainly not qualified to provide medical advice but, well, just know that there are far safer “evidence-based” drugs out there to help cope with the crushing realities of climate change, student debt and imminent nuclear war.
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