This week Dr. Rehm has been in Munich talking about alcohol, and is now on his way to Italy for National Alcohol Prevention Day on April 29, a huge event where his presentation will be given serious attention– National Alcohol Prevention Day has attracted more than 500 media articles for each of the last four years. Why do Canadians fail to show the same appreciation for messages on the consequences of alcohol use that we are exporting to willing Europeans?
Almost three quarters of Canadians drink alcohol, and we want to believe our drinking is basically harmless. Science shows us that it is not the case: alcohol is the third leading risk factor contributing to burden of disease in high income countries, behind tobacco use and high blood pressure. Unlike the hazards of illegal drugs, the harmful consequences of alcohol– including disease, social effects, physical injury, as well as the impact on youth– are still being downplayed in Canadian culture, even though the alcohol consumption level is about the same here as in Italy.
While many European countries are eager to hear what Dr. Rehm has to say, some Ontario communities are waking up to his message as well. On April 22 Dr. Rehm was near Owen Sound, Ontario presenting at a forum organized by the local public health unit on “Alcohol consumption: epidemiology and policy implications for Grey and Bruce counties”, discussing how these counties can find a balance in the use of alcohol and prevent risk-related harms..
The forum grew out of the concern that more people in the Grey Bruce area are drinking, and they are drinking more. Today 85% of locals consume alcohol, up from 80% in 2002. The binge drinking rate — five or more drinks on one occasion — was 18% in 2001, and now it’s 34%. But even moderate drinkers are drinking more. While well below 60% described themselves as drinking within the low risk drinking guidelines, this has dropped from about 65% of drinkers in 2002.
“We think that if we are not dependent on alcohol ourselves, that we can drink with no consequences. That is just not true,” Dr. Rehm says. Research indicates the greater costs and burdens come from regular non-dependent social drinkers who occasionally binge-drink. “Harm from alcohol also comes to people who are not dependent — more costs, more injuries, more deaths, more hospital days compared to abstainers or very light drinkers. It’s coming from diseases like cancers (including breast and colorectal), hypertensive disease, cardiovascular disease, and liver cirrhosis and pancreatitis–overall alcohol contributes to more than 130 diseases, and even though these are causal relations it takes a long time to see it,” he says.
And we’re passing the wrong messages about alcohol on to youth, who form their ideas early and learn about drinking from older adults. Statistics show that binge drinking among Ontario youth is high. “We should congratulate the counties of Grey and Bruce for showing concern and wanting to discuss how to find a balance in the use of alcohol and prevent risk-related harms. It’s time to challenge the dangerous myth that alcohol is benign,” Dr. Rehm says. “Alcohol is a big health problem and a social problem for our communities, for all of us. That means all of us have to do something about it. When will the rest of Canada get the message?”
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The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, as well as one of the world’s leading research centres in the area of addiction and mental health. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental health and addiction issues.
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