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New Report on Alcohol Policy in British Columbia Shows Drinking on the Rise

By Daniel Jordan, General Manager

A new report issued by the Provincial Health Officer, PRW Kendall, reveals some troubling statistics on drinking in British Columbia. Interestingly, this December 2008 report, Public Health Approach to Alcohol Policy: An Updated Report from the Provincial Health Officer, received very little attention in the media. This is too bad since the public needs to know that alcohol consumption, and the harms associated with it, has been on a steady increase since 2002.

What’s so special about 2002? That is the year that the provincial government decided to increase accessibility to alcohol.  Since 2002, the total number of liquor stores in BC has increased from 786 to 1,294. This is important since 73 percent of alcohol consumed in BC originates from liquor stores. 

To give the provincial government credit, the Public Health Approach to Alcohol Policy report was commissioned to measure the effects of making alcohol more widely available and suggest ways to minimize the health and social harms associated with increased alcohol use in BC.

Here are some of the highlights of the report:

Interesting Stat #1 – Drinking is on the Rise in BC

Since 2002, alcohol consumption has increased 8 percent overall. Government revenue from alcohol sales has increased 4 per cent per year from 2003 to 2007. Little wonder the provincial government has been slow to reverse the trend since alcohol sales provides much-needed revenue.

Interesting Stat #2 – A Small Minority of Drinkers Account for Most of the Drinking

Often lost in the statistics is how much of the alcohol is consumed by problem drinkers and alcoholics (aka alcohol dependent).  This is known as the concentration of drinking.

According to the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey:

  • the top 10 per cent heaviest drinkers in Canada accounted for 53.3 per cent of total alcohol consumption
  • the top 20 per cent accounted for approximately 72 per cent of the total
  • the remaining 80 per cent of the drinking population accounted for 28 per cent of overall alcohol consumption, as measured by selfreporting.

The self-reported data likely underestimate the true concentration of drinking in Canada. Further analysis of the data from the Canadian Addiction Survey revealed that self-reported drinking only accounted for about 40 per cent of the alcohol sold in Canada as measured by official Statistics Canada sales data *. This, coupled with the fact that heavier drinkers tend to under-report their consumption more than lighter drinkers **, suggests that the actual concentration of drinking in society is likely even more skewed than suggested.

(*) Source: Stockwell, T., Sturge, J., & Macdonald, S. (2005). Patterns of drinking in British Columbia: an analysis of the 2004 Canadian Addictions Survey. CARBC statistical bulletin #1, University of Victoria, British Columbia. 

(**) Source: Greenfield, T., Kerr, W., Bond, J., & Stockwell, T. (2007, May).Improving graduated frequencies measures for use in monitoring surveys: Results from recent US and Australian national surveys and a diary-based validity study. Paper presented at the KBS International Research Symposium: Monitoring Alcohol and Other Drug Related Harm: Building Systems to Support Better Policy. Sidney (Victoria), BC.

 Interesting Stat #3 – Youth Drinking in BC is Usually at Dangerous Levels

Over 90 per cent of alcohol consumption reported by males age 15–24 was in excess of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines, and 85 per cent of alcohol consumed by females age 15–24 exceeded the guidelines.

If you think that having a better education means reduced levels of excessive drinking, think again. In fact, the opposite is true. According to a 2005 study *, 27 per cent of undergraduate students in BC are considered hazardous drinkers, 39 per cent report being harmed by drinking, and approximately 30 per cent report at least one symptom of dependent drinking.

(*) Source: Adlaf, E., Begin, P., & Sawka, E. (Eds.). (2005). Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS): A national survey of Canadians’ use of alcohol and other drugs: Prevalence of use and related harms: Detailed
. Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

Interesting Stat #4 – Alcohol-related Social and Health Harms are on the Increase

Research shows that alcohol-related social and health harms * are on the increase in British Columbia.

Statistical analysis found that:

  • alcohol-caused hospitalizations in BC increased 3.38 percent from 2002 to 2007, 8.1 percent in the Northern Health Authority, and 10.1 percent for the 40-59 age group
  • alcohol-related or alcohol-caused deaths in BC increased 10.5 percent for adults 75 and older
  • since 2004, rates of impaired driving charges in BC have surpassed the average rate in Canada by approximately 10 percent
  • the percentage of night-time drivers testing at or above 0.05 BAC in BC fell substantially between 1995 and 2003, but increased to nearly 1995 levels in 2006.

Excessive alcohol consumption is the leading contributing cause of death among British Columbians 25 years of age and under, due to fatal road crashes, suicides, homicides, and poisoning deaths **.

(*) Note: Alcohol-related health and social harms include those related to (1) toxicity and intoxication – alcohol poisoning (overdose), (2)  harms derived from long-term chronic use – some cancers, cardiovascular diseases, liver disease and (3) social harms – violence, sexual assault, crime, alcohol-involved traffic casualties, and other intentional and unintentional injuries.

(**) Source: Ministry of Health (2006) Following the evidence: Preventing harms from substance use in BC.

For More Information on the Report

Copies of this report are available from:

Office of the Provincial Health Officer
Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport
4th Floor, 1515 Blanshard Street
Victoria, B.C. V8W 3C8

Telephone: (250) 952-1330 and electronically (in a .pdf file) from: http://www.health.gov.bc.ca/pho/

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