Ontario’s new buck-a-beer policy will mean more deaths, hospitalizations and diseases due to alcohol, health experts warn.
“It’s very simple. The cheaper something is, the more we buy,” said Jurgen Rehm, senior director of the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
“And that means that any decrease in price of alcohol will result in more consumption. And more consumption will result in more deaths and more hospitalizations.”
The policy, which is set to begin in time for the Labour Day weekend, will set a new minimum price for a can or bottle of beer, dropping it to $1 from $1.25. While it doesn’t require brewers to sell $1 beer, and many have said they can’t or won’t sell at that price, at least one craft brewer so far has said it will produce a $1 beer.
Breweries that sell a $1 beer will receive special bonuses at the LCBO, like prime shelf space and discounts, according to the Ontario government. It remains to be seen how many brewers respond to Premier Doug Ford’s “buck-a-beer challenge” and how much $1 beer actually makes it to store shelves.
But if cheap beer is available, it will have an impact, experts say.
“From a populist political point of view, it might do (Ford) some good because a lot of people like the idea of cheap beer,” said Tim Stockwell, director of the the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research.
The Ontario government disagrees. “We remain unwavering in our commitment to road responsibility and road safety,” said the premier’s spokesperson Simon Jefferies.
“We’re going to trust consumers to make mature and responsible decisions, but there is zero tolerance for those who do not.”
Price and consumption
Stockwell has researched the effects of price changes on alcohol consumption. In one study, his team found that a 10 per cent increase in the minimum per-unit price of alcohol in B.C. was associated with an eight per cent drop in alcohol-related hospital admissions.
In Saskatchewan, a 10 per cent increase in price meant an eight per cent decrease in alcohol consumption, he said. Low-income people are particularly affected by changes to the minimum price and generally try to get the most alcohol per dollar.
Raising minimum prices is seen as an effective way to reduce consumption and associated health problems worldwide, he said. “When a politician comes out and does the precise 180-degree opposite and tries to push everything in the opposite direction, I think it’s quite shocking.”
Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union have also expressed concern about the buck-a-beer policy.
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Hospitalization and death
Each year, Ontario currently has 201 hospitalizations per 100,000 people directly related to alcohol, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information. This is slightly below the national average — more people are hospitalized per capital for alcohol in Western Canada.
In Ottawa alone, paramedics responded to 2,060 calls directly attributable to alcohol in 2015, according to a recent study, and there were about 6,100 alcohol-related emergency department visits per year between 2013 and 2015. There were also 140 deaths on average.
Treating these problems caused by alcohol costs money, Rehm said. “In Ontario, we’re paying around $400 a year for alcohol-related costs. Each of us, including newborns.”
“The more we drink, the more this sum will increase. So it’s a very bad idea from a taxpayer’s perspective.”
Rehm also thinks that the fact that this price applies only to beer — not higher-alcohol beverages like hard liquor — won’t make much of a difference in terms of the public health impacts. “There is nothing great about beer. Yes, it takes a little more trips to the toilet, but otherwise, it is still strong enough alcohol to actually get drunk and to actually get up your blood alcohol level.”
While he’s still calculating the policy’s exact costs in terms of injuries and hospitalizations, he’s confident that there will be a noticeable increase. “It will be visible,” he said.