Monique Keiran: Pandemic drives many to drink, raising risks

Canada’s national guidelines for low-risk consumption of alcohol recommend no more than three drinks a day for men, up to no more than 15 drinks per week.

For women, it’s no more than two per day most days to at most 10 drinks per week.

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The guidelines, last updated about 10 years ago, are meant to inform drinkers that drinking above the suggested limits increases their risk for injuries and chronic diseases.

But recent research by the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria shows the limits are too high.

Using 2014 data on B.C. hospitalizations and deaths, the study looks at rates of illness and injury that can be attributed directly to alcohol among groups who reported different levels of drinking. The researchers found more than half of cancer deaths resulting from alcohol use occurred in people who drank within the weekly low-risk guidelines.

Eighteen per cent of conditions, such as liver cirrhosis, and 40 per cent of injuries, including motor- vehicle collisions, also occurred in people drinking within the guidelines.

In a way, it’s too bad the study wasn’t published three months earlier, before the start of the COVID-19 restrictions and all that they led to. The authors had submitted the paper to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs late last year, but peer review and the publishing process meant it appeared in June.

Some people may have adjusted their coping choices during the pandemic if they had known about the results. These souls may have been following the national low-risk drinking guidelines for years, thinking that their moderation was helping them to avoid health risks.

However, even if the study on low-risk drinking in B.C. had been published in time for the COVID-19 shutdown, it’s likely others would have ignored it, remained unaware, or were too busy, overwhelmed or stressed for it to have made much difference. They would still have lined up to stock up to drink up.

In mid-March, when the B.C. government banned large gatherings and closed nightclubs, bars, and dine-in restaurants to slow the spread of COVID-19, a run on B.C. liquor stores took place. Some panic buying may have occurred. Some stockpiling may have happened. The prospect was grim: uncertainty, job losses, mounting bills and declining incomes, weeks on end at home, stress …

The B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch reported near the end of March that sales “were up 40 per cent” for the month, an unprecedented increase.

The trend continued. A Nanos poll conducted for the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction in April showed that 25 per cent of Canadians aged 35 to 54 and 21 per cent of people 18 to 34 were drinking more during the lockdown. Reasons given included lack of routine, boredom, stress and loneliness.

Another survey in May suggested heavy drinking was highest among younger people and those worried about the pandemic’s effect on personal finances. Nearly 30 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 39 reported heavy episodic drinking at least once in the previous week.

Data from B.C.’s liquor branch confirmed increased consumption here. The wholesale value of alcohol sold in March and April increased 17.5 per cent over the same period last year. With bars, restaurants and nightclubs closed, or offering limited deliveries or pickups, individuals accounted for most sales.

Yet the study’s results are no surprise. They confirm for our region what other research has established generally and elsewhere. For example, in 2018, a global study analyzing levels of alcohol use and its health effects in 195 countries from 1990 to 2016 concluded that no amount of alcohol is safe.

The study found that alcohol consumption was the leading risk factor for disease worldwide, accounting for almost 10 per cent of deaths among people aged 15to 49.

The increased potential to develop cancer, other diseases and other risks of harm offset even the few and much-touted protections against heart disease that some moderate drinkers see.

Canada’s current recommended alcohol limits exceed those of most high-income countries, including the United States.

The B.C. study suggests the guideline limits be lowered.

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