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UVic scientist wants labels on alcohol to show health risks

There are good laws requiring labelling of tobacco and cannabis products, but a massive blindspot when it comes to labelling alcohol, says Tim Naimi
Tim Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at UVic, wants to see new guidelines that warn of the risks associated with as few as three drinks per week backed up by mandatory labelling and strong public policy. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A University of Victoria scientist involved in the overhaul of Canada’s decade-old drinking guidelines envisions a future where alcohol bottles have printed labels and QR codes that inform consumers of the health risks of drinking.

Dr. Tim Naimi is one of three scientists at UVic’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research on an expert committee that formulated proposed new guidelines warning of the risks associated with as few as three drinks per week. He wants the guidelines to be backed up by mandatory labelling and strong public policy.

“Why is it I can easily find the amount of calcium in a can of peas, but then I buy a container of alcohol, which is a calorie-dense, potentially addictive, intoxicating carcinogen, and I have none of that information conveyed to me on the label,” said Naimi. “And when I open that can of peas, I know the serving size but not when I open a bottle of whisky.

“It’s outrageous.”

In its suggested update to Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines released this week, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction says risk is negligible-to-low for two drinks per week, moderate for three to six drinks per week and increasingly high beyond that.

The current guidelines, released in 2011, suggest limiting alcohol use to 10 drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men.

The message is “drinking less is better for you,” said Naimi. “I think the new guidelines reflect a lot of new science that shows the risk is higher than has been previously appreciated.”

While the guidelines “don’t pull any punches,” the goal isn’t to tell people to stop drinking but to help consumers make informed choices, he said.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the guidelines were printed on the label and there was also a QR code so you could see information including how many calories there are per serving and the number of standard drinks in each container?”

There are good laws requiring labelling of tobacco and cannabis products, but a “massive blindspot” when it comes to labelling alcohol, said Naimi.

“Canadian citizens have the right to know this information,” said Naimi. “The Canadian government has the duty to warn them about the potentially harmful effects of alcohol and basic information like standard drink sizes.”

Over the past 10 to 15 years, there’s been growing scientific evidence “that alcohol is a carcinogen and is linked to somewhere between seven and 10 types of cancer,” mostly breast cancer and colorectal cancer, followed by cancers of the rectum, mouth and throat, liver, esophagus and larynx, said Naimi.

In all, alcohol is a factor in about 50 different diseases, and the risk of alcohol-caused deaths starts to increase above just a couple of drinks per week, he said.

There are also alcohol deaths related to road injuries and and societal problems, including domestic violence. Almost half of alcohol-related deaths stem from acute impairment, said Naimi.

Generally speaking, alcohol is ethanol, which damages a person’s DNA. “Other than in very small amounts, alcohol has negative health affects on most organ systems in the body,” said Naimi.

Naimi hopes the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and Health Canada are successful in communicating the guidelines, but “in public health, we know that education is important, but it’s not as effective as strong public policies.”

Those could include policies governing alcohol pricing, availability, labelling and advertising.

In the last year, alcohol consumption was the highest it’s been in B.C., said Naimi, with increased options for home delivery, more alcohol outlets available than ever before, minimum prices that haven’t been raised in response to inflation, and the “rampant” marketing of alcohol products.

If people want to change their behaviors, they need environmental cues and support “that make it OK to not drink or to drink less, and not to be constantly bombarded with different messages,” he said.

When it comes to youth drinking, he said, “if you want to impact the next generation, you have to impact the current generation.”

“It’s kind of a fantasy that you can just sort of address the next generation’s drinking without addressing the current generation’s drinking,” said Naimi. “Adults are modelling behavior for youth, whether in the home or outside of the home.”

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use opened online public consultations this week on the report. The survey is open until Sept. 23 to members of the public as well as any experts with suggestions on additions or clarifications.

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