TORONTO — Starbucks is now selling beer and wine in some of its Toronto locations, but health experts are warning of the potential harmful effects the increased availability of alcohol can have on society and urging Canadians to be mindful of the risks.
After six years of similar service in the U.S., the company unveiled its Evenings menu in Canada for the first time Tuesday — ushering in a new era of consumer choices such as craft beer or pinot noir after 2 p.m., instead of just coffee.
While these new options may seem like a blessing to consumers, health experts are warning that more availability could inevitably lead to more consumption.
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“Clearly alcohol is central to our culture without a doubt … almost 80 per cent of Canadians drink alcohol and it’s pervasive. You can’t go to the grocery store these days without seeing alcohol of some sort,” said Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada’s chief public health officer.
“I think the evidence certainly suggests that increasing accessibility, increased visibility, increases consumption.”
Taylor added that although Starbucks is just another Canadian restaurant selling alcohol, the liquor product is now “highly visible.”
“In Canada we treat alcohol more like a beverage than we do a drug,” he said.
“It’s a drug. I think that by having it visible in a number of different places, it normalizes — it’s normal. Everybody drinks, what’s the problem? It normalizes it. It downplays the risk and we look at it just like a beverage. Have a soda, have a beer, have this or that — and it’s not. It’s a drug.”
Dr. Tim Stockwell, a psychologist and director of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research, said there appears to be a general move in society toward more accessibility to alcohol and “heavy pressure” from people who make alcohol and retail it for this to happen without much mention of the downsides.
“The problem is with alcohol it’s not an ordinary commodity and unfortunately the more we consume of it, the more damage to our health and the more risk to our safety in a direct dose response way,” he said, adding that more accessibility leads to more consumption in the community.
“I think there’s a real strong disincentive for people to look the evidence square in the eye and understand exactly what the risks are.”
Only three Toronto locations currently sell beer and wine — 3079 Bloor Street W., 446 Spadina Rd. and 1740 Avenue Rd. — but Stockwell said there is great potential to expand.
“They’ve got many, many Starbucks outlets — you see them on almost every street in a city or town — so it’s a huge potential increase,” he said, adding that research shows that when the number of outlets goes up, so to does drinking in society.
“The general principle that greater convenience means more consumption and more premature deaths and more hospital admissions is true.”
Dr. Robert Mann, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said the growing rates of alcohol-related issues in Canadian society are of concern in light of research related to the issue of increased availability.
“The easier it is to get alcohol, the more that we will drink and the more that we drink, the more problems we will have,” he said.
“Previously I believe these venues were not selling alcohol and now they will be and perhaps more of them will be so that means people will now see it as being a normal thing to do. Rather than go say have a cup of coffee, they might have a few drinks in these places.”
Mann added that coffee shops were traditional seen as “alcohol-free zones” for people dealing with alcohol abuse issues.
“So now we’re going to have places which were relatively safe for these folks in the past, they’re now going to have to deal with these cues that might elicit urges for drinking,” he said.
“‘If it’s available in Starbucks it must be OK for me to go to Starbucks and have a few beers.’ Again it’s this process of normalization that will, in the end, lead to increased use and increased problems.”
Stockwell said that the root of developing severe alcohol problems in society is in part due to how “wet” the community is and how accepting it is of alcohol.
“The problems with alcohol aren’t just limited to the very small number of people who have severe problems and alcohol dependence,” he said, adding that increases in moderate drinking have been linked to a range of cancers.
“There’s actually more harms involving people who drink moderately on average then drink large amounts everyday. … So it’s not just the severely dependent person, but there would likely be generated more such people by the increased availability and extra convenience — it just prompts more people to drink more regularly.”
A spokeswoman for Starbucks Canada said in an emailed statement that the company has taken a “long and thoughtful approach” to serving alcohol in stores to ensure they are “getting it right.”
“From the way we’re training and preparing our field leadership and our store partners (employees), to the menu we’ve selected, to the way you feel when you’re in our stores, we’ve paid attention,” said Jessica Mills, director of brand and digital.
“Our partners have been trained on responsible serving practices and we’ve put standards and procedures in place to ensure responsible alcohol service and sound decision‐making.”
WATCH: Starbucks begins offering booze at 3 Toronto locations
Taylor said that with the increased availability of alcohol and rates of alcohol use, Canadians need to be more mindful of the risks in every aspect of society.
“I think having that knowledge for folks so that they understand that it is a drug and does have risks, I mean Tylenol is a drug and it does have risks when you use it in low doses it’s perfectly good, high doses it has risks,” he said.
“We think of that, that’s not a problem, we don’t market it besides the milk and things so it’s interesting for me how we think about it totally differently of alcohol in our society.”
Taylor said deaths associated with alcohol poisoning have risen to 260 in 2012 up from 88 in 2005, and the majority of those deaths were for people aged 35 to 64.
“It’s not as if these are young kids who are playing around and getting used to this drug, these are people who I would assume have alcohol in their lives for quite some time. So that’s worrisome,” he said.
“So I think we need to change our attitude of what this is. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t choose to drink — there’s nothing in life that doesn’t carry some degree of risk, but we have to think about the risk and know the risk that we’re taking and understand that it’s a drug.
“It’s not like having a coffee or having a glass of water — it is a drug.”