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Summary of Chief Public Health Officer’s 2015 Report on Alcohol Consumption

March 9, 2016

On February 3, 2016 Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Gregory Taylor, released his “Report on the State of Public Health in Canada, 2015: Alcohol Consumption in Canada”.  The 2015 version of this annual report provides a snapshot of drinking in Canada, explores the impact of alcohol consumption, and identifies alcohol as an important public health issue for Canadians. In 2013, an estimated 22 million Canadians, almost 80% of the population, reported drinking alcohol in the previous year.

Key points from the report:

  • At least 3.1 million Canadians drink enough to be at risk for immediate injury and harm, and 4.4 million are at risk for chronic health effects, such as liver cirrhosis and various cancers.
  • Drinking patterns matter – how much and how often a person drinks alcohol can increase or decrease health impacts.
  • Social situations, family contexts and messaging influence drinking patterns. For example, many Canadians associate  drinking with positive situations including important celebrations, forming friendships, and positive mood and relaxation. But risky drinking can increase the risk of alcohol related harms such as family conflict, violence, sexual assault, and traffic crashes.
  • Our understanding of the dose-dependent health effects (positive and negative) of alcohol continues to evolve. For example, the World Cancer Report 2014 and the Canadian Cancer Society state that there is no “safe limit” of alcohol consumption when it comes to cancer prevention.
  • Youth are particularly at risk for negative impacts from drinking alcohol. Teenage brains are still developing and are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, and family, friends and those who care for or work with youth can influence youth drinking behaviour.
  • Policy level approaches such as a regulated alcohol industry, pricing and taxation, controls on sales and availability, and minimum age laws can help reduce the impact on Canadians, especially youth. 
  • There are significant gaps in our understanding of current drinking patterns, risk factors, alcohol’s impact on health and the effectiveness of approaches to reduce harm.

Dr. Taylor concludes that many current primary prevention strategies aim to reduce risky alcohol consumption and associated impacts, but none of these are universally successful. He identifies the importance of multilevel strategies to reduce the health impacts of alcohol; strategies that take into account the many levels and types of influences on drinking behaviour including increasing individual awareness, screening and brief intervention, addressing the social acceptability of alcohol in our society, and policy level actions, such as government controls on availability and advertising to control access and exposure to alcohol.

Dr Taylor calls on Canadians to take a closer look at our current approach to reduce alcohol harms, and asks “are we doing enough to reduce these harms?” 

Other references:
A previous report by the Canadian Public Health Association: “Too High a Cost: A Public Health Approach to Alcohol Policy in Canada” (2011)

Jackie Kay-LePors, MScN