Alcohol consumption

Dr Strang explains proposed new drinking guidelines

Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health said people should know the risks associated with drinking alcohol after a national advisory body proposed new guidelines earlier this week.

In a report released Monday, the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction said any level of alcohol consumption had a net negative impact on health for nearly every disease examined, including several types of cancer, heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver.

The health risks become “higher and higher” when a person drinks six or more drinks a week. And for women who drink three or more drinks a week, the risk of health problems increases more sharply than men, research shows.

Previous guidelines suggested low-risk drinking limits of 15 drinks per week for men and 10 for women.

Dr. Robert Strang serves on the executive committee that reviews Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines. He has also served on the National Alcohol Strategy Advisory Committee since 2009.

He spoke with host Jeff Douglas about the proposed guidelines on Friday.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

These new guidelines represent a significant drop, which shocked many people.

It’s certainly a shift but I think as the report points out that’s really what the latest science is saying and the very intention of this report is, what do we know about a whole host of risks related to alcohol consumption and what do we then need to do to ensure that Canadians have this information and can use it and support them in the choices they make?

But ultimately, how does this information begin to inform various policy decisions about how we create environments that will support people in these choices?

How do these new guidelines fit with what we know about our drinking habits in Nova Scotia?

[The centre] in fact, for me, it provided an opportunity to really strengthen our work around Nova Scotian engagement, but also in terms of policy discussions. We have a long history and are well known for having high rates of alcohol abuse in Nova Scotia.

This study really reinforces the fact that this type of alcohol consumption has huge impacts on our collective health, comes at a huge cost to our health care, criminal justice and education systems, so for me it’s the opportunity to have a conversation around: “Are we OK with that?”

How do we make that change and improve health, reduce the impacts of all those systems, and then how do we do that? Both educating and supporting individuals, but also what are the policy discussions that will help support people who consume alcohol in a much safer way.

Do we have data here in Nova Scotia that quantifies the burden that alcohol consumption has placed on our health care system?

Work has been done on this in various provinces, but the data I have in front of me in the report talks about national data. The national collective cost of alcohol on health care is $5.4 billion per year.

Alcohol use is a major driver of poor health and a major driver of use costs, whether it’s the acute effects — the increased risk of violence and injury — or some of the long-term effects. — cancer, heart disease, et cetera, and the impacts are also on mental health must be discussed.

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NS Main Street10:09Dr Robert Strang on the new drinking guidelines

Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health said people should know the risks associated with drinking alcohol after a national advisory body proposed new guidelines earlier this week. Host Jeff Douglas spoke with Dr. Robert Strang about the new guidelines.

It has a huge cost factor, not just in health care but in our criminal justice system, in our community services, in our education systems and that $5.4 billion is really just a national level just for the health care system.

Where would you like to see the political conversations go, surrounding alcohol as a factor in our society?

For me, policy conversations need to start with things like product labelling. We’ve had it for a long time with tobacco products. When we legalized cannabis, the focus was both on product labeling and on point of purchase, point of use.

For me, for years it has been apparent that we have no such thing for alcohol and the report’s recommendations are clear on this. We need product labelling. If we say low-risk drinking is two standard drinks or less per week, well, knowing how many standard drinks a bottle of wine contains is important.

But also health warnings, cancer risk and other things like the ones we have on cannabis and tobacco products and other nutritional information. That should be the first thing we talk about and generally this kind of labeling happens with tobacco and cannabis at the federal level. It’s really their skill. This should be the first political discussion to come out of this in terms of how to give people more information about products as they actually use them.

Several years ago there was a pilot project in the Yukon to put warning labels on alcohol as you describe. I understand the pilot never took off due to lobbying by alcohol producers. In the national alcohol strategy, what kind of buy-in does the industry have?

The alcohol industry had a seat directly at that community advisory table and it no longer has it.

The national alcohol strategy is actually led by the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse. They’re supported by Health Canada and so a decision was made and the restructuring decision was ultimately supported by Health Canada because since I’ve been there having the industry at the table because they’re not working because they take information that they learn to sit at a health table and use it in many ways in closed rooms, to circumvent processes, to lobby, and to wield their enormous influence over elected officials.

Previous guidelines suggested low-risk drinking limits of 15 drinks per week for men and 10 for women. (Radio Canada)

So they basically stalled and the project you talked about, I know it. It’s a great example. They actually used their influence to stop this important research on the impact of labeling, and the study was able to take place in a limited way and the limited time of the results showed significant impact.

The liquor industry won’t be happy about this, but this is a consumer product. My position would therefore be that Canadians, Nova Scotians, deserve to have precise information on the risks of a product. We’re not telling them they can’t use it, but you should have accurate information about it to help you make choices about how you use this product.