Health Canada needs to update its guidance on safe levels of alcohol consumption, according to researchers from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA). Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said it is an "important piece of advice."
In January, the CCSA published that no amount of alcohol is safe for consumption. They updated their "low-risk" consumption classification to two drinks per week instead of two drinks per day, as stated by 2011 guidance.
"I think every Canadian deserves to know what the experts believe," Duclos told The Canadian Press. "In the end, it's for people to decide. They need to have easy access to the type of information that matters to them."
Statistics Canada data uncovered a record number of Canadians who died from alcohol abuse during the COVID pandemic. In 2020, Health Canada reported 3,790 alcohol-related deaths; by 2021, that number increased to 3,875.
The largest year-over-year change in alcohol-induced deaths in the past two decades occurred from 2019 to 2020, with an 18% increase. "Alcohol-induced mortality also increased significantly throughout the pandemic," reads the report.
CCSA guidance co-chair, Dr. Peter Butt, said the onus is on Health Canada to inform the public on essential information. He called alcohol a "complicated commodity" because it is a potentially high-risk product linked to health conditions and rising healthcare costs.
Alcohol abuse hit Canadians under 65 the hardest, as deaths increased by 27% from 2019 to 2020. According to the report, alcohol-induced mortality statistics reflect death by liver disease, accidental poisoning, intentional self-poisoning, pancreatitis, gastritis, and other related conditions.
A spokesperson for Mental Health and Addictions Minister, Carolyn Bennett, said the government would "continue to engage Canadians on policies to address alcohol-related harms and to determine best approaches to disseminate information on risks related to alcohol use."
"We believe it is essential to have this work … done before proceeding to finalize specific guidance tools and methods of communication," reads the statement.
"We're talking about a cultural and political shift that doesn't happen overnight. But you know, people would like to see the government do the right thing," said Butt of replacing the old guidance.
First passed in the 2017 federal budget, Ottawa legislated an alcohol escalator tax that automatically increased excise taxes on beer, wine, and spirits yearly with inflation without a vote in Parliament. Alcohol taxes increased by 6.3% on April 1.
According to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), taxes account for about half the price of beer, 65% of the cost of wine, and more than three-quarters of the price of spirits. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce contends the country has among the highest alcohol taxes in the world.
"On average, 47% of the price of beer in Canada is from federal or provincial taxes. Approximately 65% of the cost of wine is due to taxes. On average, 80% of the price of spirits is taxes," said Perrin Beatty, President and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. "Canadians already pay about $20 billion per year in alcohol taxes, [and] the escalator tax increases that tax burden even more."
"Distillers claim the taxation rate is 80%, but our estimates show this to be 20% to 30%," reads a government backgrounder. "Brewers claim the taxation rate is 47%, but our estimates show this to be 16% to 18%."
The evidence researchers considered raises multiple questions: "What must we do to respond to this? What's our responsibility? And where do we land in terms of tolerating risk — politically and economically as opposed to the right thing to do?"
"I'm sure Health Canada is grappling with this as individuals did when the guidance came out," said the co-chair.
Catherine Paradis, interim director of the CCSA, said plans are underway to educate the public online, through doctors' offices and various agencies, about the risks related to drinking alcohol. "We're receiving tons of requests," she said of interest from organizations including the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Liver Foundation.
In February, Bennett hoped the industry would voluntarily mandate warning labels for alcohol, as the feds have yet to define their stance on the issue. Butt questioned her stance on leaving the issue of warning labels to the alcohol industry.
"This is not providing any guidance whatsoever. This is just going to kick the can further down the road. And what do you think the tobacco industry would have done if they were told to place labels on their packages of cigarettes voluntarily," said Butt.