Canadians should consider limiting their alcohol consumption to two drinks or less per week, according to new national guidance.
The recommendations released Tuesday by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) said that drinking more than two standard drinks — an equivalent of 13.45g of pure alcohol – at a time is associated with increased risks.
The CCSA report is an update to Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines that were published in 2011.
The update comes after two years of research, a review of nearly 6,000 peer-reviewed studies and about 1,000 survey submissions from the public. Part of the project was funded by Health Canada.
The definition of a standard drink in Canada is equivalent to a bottle of beer, glass of wine, a shot glass of spirits or a bottle of cider.
The harm to yourself and others is “moderate” — meaning a 1 in 100 risk of premature death — if you have three to six drinks weekly, CCSA said. As you increase the intake, the risks grow higher — more steeply for women than men above when they go over six drinks per week.
“The principles that we want to land on is that people have a right to know less is better, and that there’s harm reduction strategies that people can use to decrease the amount that they drink in order to improve their health and well-being,” said Dr. Peter Butt, co-chair of the project to develop Canada’s alcohol guidance.
Previous Canadian guidelines implemented in 2011 considered up to two drinks a day, or 10 a week for women and three daily drinks, or 15 per week, for men as “low risk.”
The updated guidance aims to provide an “evidence base for future alcohol policy and prevention resources, with a view to changing Canada’s drinking culture and curbing the normalization of harmful alcohol use in society,” CCSA said in its report.
“Overwhelming evidence confirms that when it comes to drinking, less alcohol, less consumption means less risk of harm from alcohol,” the guidance stated.
Pregnant people, or those who are trying to get pregnant, are advised to completely refrain from drinking as alcohol can cause birth defects and could have lifelong impacts on the fetus.
Meanwhile, if you are breastfeeding, drinking on occasion is acceptable but no alcohol use is “safest for the baby,” as it takes about two hours for the alcohol to leave the body and breastmilk after consumption.
Even though female bodies are more susceptible to damage from alcohol, men drink more on average and are more likely than women to experience and cause alcohol-related harms, according to research cited in the guidance.
In Canada, the legal drinking age is 19 years and older except for Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta where 18-year-olds are legally permitted to consume alcohol.
CCSA says that youth and young adults should “delay alcohol use for as long as possible” because the risk of adverse outcomes for them is greater compared to adults.
Recent studies show alcohol consumption among Generation Z — those born in the late 1990s to early 2010s — is on the decline as people become more health-conscious and shift to other substances.
The guidance also underlines certain circumstances when no alcohol use is safest such as while driving, using machines and tools, taking medicine or other drugs that interact with alcohol and dangerous physical activity.
What are the health effects of drinking alcohol?
There is growing evidence about the negative health impacts of alcohol for those who consume it and others around them.
Alcohol can affect various organs, putting people at increased risk for cirrhosis, pancreatitis, gastrointestinal inflammation, heart disease, multiple cancers as well as injury from falls, violence and motor vehicle crashes, according to research compiled by the CCSA.
It is also the leading preventable cause of death, disability and social problems, CCSA stated.
In 2020, alcohol use was linked to 7,000 new cancer cases in Canada, including 24 per cent of breast cancer cases, 20 per cent of colon cancers, 15 per cent of rectal cancers, and 13 per cent of oral and liver cancers, according to a global study published in the journal Lancet Oncology.
The Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) welcomed the new guidelines, saying drinking less alcohol lowers your cancer risk.
“This guidance will help encourage people to rethink if they consume alcohol and when and help them to make an informed decision about that,” said Elizabeth Holmes, senior manager of health policy at the CCS.
To encourage Canadians to adhere to its updated guidance, CCSA said mandatory labelling of all alcoholic beverages with the number of standard drinks in a container, health warnings and the newly released guidance would be effective.
The CSA also said the guidance should be regularly reviewed as more evidence evolves and consumption habits change.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on drinking habits in Canada, with stress, boredom and loneliness contributing to an increase in consumption for nearly a quarter of the population, according to a 2021 Statistics Canada survey.
Meanwhile, around one in five Canadians also said they’ve been drinking less than they did pre-pandemic, and among those aged 15 to 29, one third had decreased their consumption.
To help Canadians cut down on their alcohol intake and slow down its absorption, Butt advised alternating a non-alcoholic beverage with an alcohol beverage and making sure you eat before you start drinking.
Other tips by CCSA included drinking slowly and staying hydrated with lots of water.
“People can socialize, people can enjoy the company of others without necessarily becoming intoxicated, because it’s not just the cumulative effects … it’s also the acute effects,” said Butt.
— with files from Global News’ Kyle Benning and The Canadian Press.