You may share a bottle of wine or go out for a night of drinking with friends, but are you paying attention to your alcohol consumption? While drinking is a normal social behaviour in Canada, the country’s chief public health officer says the nation needs to reshape its perspective when it comes to alcohol.
Eighty per cent of Canadians drink, according to 2013 estimates. At least 3.1 million people drank enough to be at risk of immediate injury, and another 4.4 million are at risk of chronic health conditions, including liver cirrhosis and cancer, a new Public Health Agency of Canada report warned Wednesday.
It’s time for Canadians to view alcohol in a different light, Dr. Gregory Taylor, the nation’s chief public health officer, said.
“In Canada, we think of alcohol as a food or a beverage, but in fact, it’s a psychotropic, mind-altering drug,” Taylor told Global News.
“[Drinking] is an accepted part of society. It’s normalized – people drink for pleasure and drink in entertainment. It’s associated with sophistication…I don’t think Canadians are aware of the harms,” he said.
Each year, the nation’s chief public health officer issues a report – under legislative requirement – that looks at the health of Canadians. Because of common misconceptions about alcohol, Taylor chose drinking as this year’s subject.
The report is a summary of existing data from the scientific community. Other reports zeroed in on seniors and elder care, and health issues in young Canadians, as examples.
While a plethora of research surfaced about alleged health benefits of drinking alcohol, Taylor says studies could be misleading Canadians. His peers are “hotly contesting” some results.
“These so-called benefits may not exist at all and even if they do, they don’t accrue until middle age and there are no health benefits identified for youth and young people whatsoever,” he warned.
On the other hand, scientists are also pointing to the risks tied to alcohol, when it comes to the onset of cancer or liver disease. He suggests there are “significant gaps” in our understanding of drinking patterns, risk factors and alcohol’s impact on our long-term health.
The report estimates that 4,258 deaths were tied to alcohol abuse in 2002. Drinking was the third highest risk factor for global disease.
Taylor says his next steps are to better understand and question what health officials and policy analysts are doing to reduce the harms tied to alcohol. So far, the country laid out alcohol guidelines – 15 drinks for men and 10 for women put you at “low risk” – along with a national alcohol strategy. But officials need to work on raising awareness about too much alcohol.
The report follows a Cancer Care Ontario report released in 2015 that warned that 3,000 cancer diagnoses in Ontario were linked to alcohol consumption.
It’s often overlooked by the more obvious risk factors — smoking, tanning or an unhealthy diet — but alcohol intake is also a major concern, the report found.
In Ontario, between 1,000 and 3,000 new cancer cases were attributable to alcohol consumption. The estimates make up about four per cent of diagnoses that year.
Cancers linked to drinking include oral, esophageal, larynx, liver, colorectal and breast.
There hasn’t been a clear explanation as to why alcohol would boost cancer risk. One possibility is that the components in alcohol once broken down may be toxic to your body’s tissue. It also increases estrogen, which can increase risk of breast cancer, experts believe.
The Ontario report said that the World Health Organization has designated alcohol as a Class 1 carcinogen — that’s the strongest ranking. That means there is “sufficient evidence” that alcohol is linked to cancer in humans.
Read the CPHO report released Wednesday morning here.