Opinion: Why Canada needs a federal alcohol act

In a recent article published in Policy Options – Institute for Research on Public Policy, the authors Laura Kennedy and Noel Guscott discussed the need for Canada to establish a federal alcohol act. The authors of the article propose that since alcohol misuse accounts for a large percentage of all Canadian health care costs, this presents ‘the perfect policy window’ to implement an act.

According to data released by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), one-quarter of Canadians declare drinking more at home during the pandemic for a variety of reasons, including lack of a regular schedule, stress, and boredom. Therefore, Kennedy and Guscott suggest that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic presents a good opportunity for the federal government to take legislative action and implement a federal alcohol act to address this increase in alcohol consumption. New legislation could also include a harm reduction approach to consuming alcohol that addresses relevant factors such as advertising, labeling, access to alcohol, and the affordability of alcohol products.

The CCSA has previously demonstrated that in 2014, 38% of all healthcare costs were attributable to alcohol abuse. Furthermore, the rate of hospitalizations in 2017 was higher for alcohol abuse than for heart attacks, while other studies have shown that alcohol can increase vulnerability to diseases such as COVID-19. Finally, the financial costs attributable to alcohol use are higher than for any other substance in Canada. Specifically, between 2015-2017, these costs equaled roughly $16.6 billion dollars.

Studies conducted by Statistics Canada have shown that during COVID, the proportion of Canadians who use cannabis has also increased, albeit at a much lower rate than alcohol. In addition, the use of tobacco products has also increased. The authors of the article point out that in contrast to alcohol, there is a legislative framework to address the public health concerns of cannabis and tobacco consumption, such as warning labels on cigarette packages.

“While Canada’s federal and provincial governments have yet to act, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends tightening alcohol regulations during COVID-19 – a time when many are stressed, anxious and stretched,” the article reads.

Kennedy and Guscott argue that the relaxation of current alcohol policies has created new industry possibilities, including new regulations that allow restaurants and publicly owned alcohol retailers to deliver alcohol, which was not possible before the pandemic. They propose that a new federal alcohol act could be modelled after the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act, and further modified to accommodate alcohol.

Such an act would address the public health problem of heavy alcohol consumption by reducing the product’s economic availability, enable a harm reduction approach, and harmonize and update the patchwork of existing federal alcohol policies to provide legal and regulatory clarity and a reinvigorated public health response.

“COVID has shown us the impact of a pandemic on Canadians drinking. It has also shone a spotlight on the current state of alcohol policy in Canada. There is a case for federal alcohol legislation, as recommended by countless researchers before us,” the article concludes.

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