Population health versus convenience: the sobering cost of liberalizing alcohol policies

The Ontario government has significantly expanded the places and times where alcohol can be purchased. Its stated goals are twofold: to improve choice and convenience for consumers and to support jobs in the hospitality industry.

Of course, there are many factors that governments consider when developing alcohol policy. From these perspectives, the expansion of alcohol retailing might be justified. But what is missing from the discussions on this topic is the key trade-off between convenience and public health: that is, choice and convenience will undoubtedly come at the expense of the health of the population. .

It may sound like too dramatic a statement. It’s not. The effects of alcohol policy have been studied for decades, and there is no mystery as to what happens when the availability of alcohol increases, however modest. As consumption increases, so does a wide range of harms.

Many people are unaware of the extent and extent of harm caused by alcohol. It is responsible for more than 18,000 deaths per year in Canada, with costs estimated at $ 17 billion per year in health care, lost productivity, criminal justice and other direct costs, far exceeding the monetary benefits.

Meanwhile, alcohol consumption has increased during the pandemic, including binge drinking. That’s a concern in itself, but you don’t even have to drink a lot to experience any harm: research has shown that even moderate drinking is linked to increased rates of cancer. A shocking recent trend in the United States is that life expectancy is declining, with alcohol playing a major role – and Canada may soon follow suit. Further liberalization of alcohol sales will accelerate these trends.

A common argument for increasing convenience is that many jurisdictions, including several Canadian provinces, sell alcohol in grocery or convenience stores, with little apparent impact on public health or safety. But the scientific evidence tells a different story.

In Alberta and British Columbia, for example, the privatization of alcohol sales and the increase in the number of private alcohol retail outlets have been associated with an increase in alcohol-related deaths. Study after study in many jurisdictions shows that as the availability of alcohol increases, so do a range of acute and chronic health problems.

People of lower socio-economic status are disproportionately affected by these kinds of policies. These trends have been seen time and time again around the world, which is why the World Health Organization recommends strict regulations on the availability of alcohol, including a reduced number and concentration of retail outlets and reduced sales hours.

Liberalization of alcohol sales has been happening in Ontario for some time and has happened regardless of the party in power. But recently we’ve seen a big increase in the number of places where alcohol is sold, longer selling hours, and lower prices. This provincial government has also promised to allow the sale of alcohol in convenience stores. Decades of research leave no doubt that these increases in the availability of alcohol will have adverse effects on the health of the population.

It is up to citizens and our elected representatives to weigh the competing priorities of population health and convenience. But how do we balance them when we fail to recognize the clear relationship between availability and harm?

Too often we approach alcohol regulation as if it were an ordinary product like milk or apples. It’s not; Alcohol is a drug that has inherent health risks and causes significant damage, even at lower levels of consumption. We are not arguing for a return to prohibition or calling on people to stop drinking.

Simply put, alcohol policy should be crafted with the recognition that this is no ordinary product. Its under-regulation has direct negative effects and costs on the health of the population.

From a health perspective, our alcohol policy is going in the wrong direction. Ontario should not allow the sale of alcohol in convenience stores. We need to freeze further liberalization of alcohol sales. The provincial government should develop a provincial alcohol strategy in consultation with public health and safety stakeholders – and independently of the alcohol industry. And as a society, we need to rethink our approach to alcohol.

Dr Samantha Wells is Senior Director and Principal Investigator at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health. Pegeen walsh is the executive director of the Ontario Public Health Association. André Murie is CEO of MADD Canada.


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