COVID-19 pandemic shows why Canada needs a federal alcohol act

In a recent opinion article published in Policy Options, authors Laura J. Kennedy and Noel Guscott discussed the reasons Canada needs a federal alcohol act.

According to the report released by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), one quarter of Canadians say they have been drinking more at home during the pandemic, citing reasons such as lack of a regular schedule, stress and boredom.

The authors of the opinion article argue that due to the pandemic-related increases in alcohol consumption, it is time for the federal government to take legislative action in the form of a federal alcohol act to address heavy drinking. Moreover, the authors suggest that such legislation could also follow a harm reduction approach to alcohol that addresses currently unresolved issues related to alcohol advertising and labelling, as well as access and affordability.

Currently, heavy drinking is defined by Canada’s low risk drinking guidelines as consuming more than 10 drinks per week for women and 15 for men. The CCSA has also demonstrated that in Canada, 38% of the total healthcare costs in 2014 were attributable to alcohol abuse. In addition, the rate of hospitalizations in 2017 were higher for alcohol abuse than for heart attacks. Research also suggests that increased alcohol consumption increases susceptibility to infectious diseases such as COVID-19. As well, the financial costs attributable to alcohol use are higher than for any other substance.

Data released by Statistics Canada has also shown that during the COVID-19 pandemic the use of cannabis and tobacco products has also increased. In contrast to alcohol products, there is a legislative framework in place to address the public health concerns for tobacco and cannabis products. However, there is no robust national public health approach concerning alcohol.

Despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations to tighten alcohol regulations during COVID-19 by implementing policies such as increasing excise taxes, restricting access and banning advertising, such policies have not been implemented in Canada.

On the contrary, the current alcohol policies have been relaxed during the pandemic, creating new industry possibilities. For instance, new regulations have allowed restaurants and publicly owned alcohol retailers to deliver alcohol. Currently, the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC) has plans to implement a home delivery model used by to other private businesses.

The authors of the opinion article suggest creating a new federal alcohol act, which could be modelled after the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act. They suggest that such an act could address heavy alcohol consumption by reducing the product’s economic availability, and include a harm reduction approach. According to the authors, such changes would involve minimum increases in unit drink prices, and there would be “a greater commitment to enhancing public knowledge around the harms of heavy drinking.”

“As we look back on the lessons learned and the lessons learned from other drugs, we should approach alcohol with the same harm reduction approach. This is our policy window to advocate for a federal alcohol act that protects all Canadians,” the authors conclude.

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