New alcohol guidance: When are provinces planning to adopt measures?

New alcohol guidance: When are provinces planning to adopt measures?

Politicians responsible for provincial and territorial alcohol laws are in no hurry to pass or promote newly updated guidelines recommending a sharp decline in Canada’s drinking habits.

Ministers across Canada turned down requests for interviews from The Canadian Press. In written responses, they made no commitment to changing alcohol marketing methods and noted that they are awaiting Ottawa’s guidance on putting warning labels on products.

In some cases, like Nunavut and British Columbia, governments say they are actively reviewing policies. Two provinces — New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — said their health departments are developing plans to incorporate the new advice.

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The guidance, produced by the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction for Health Canada and released January 17, represents a significant change from the 2011 recommendation that two drinks a day was considered low-risk. The updated report states that there is a moderate risk of harm for those who consume between three and six standard drinks per week, and it increases with each additional drink.

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Kevin Shield, a professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health, notes that according to Statistics Canada’s most recent survey, about two-thirds of Canadians who drink alcohol consume in the guideline’s riskier areas.

Shield – which studies methods used by governments to reduce alcohol-related harm – said in an interview on Wednesday that liquor agencies are currently not giving consumers a good sense of alcohol’s long-term health risks. The typical messages, he said, are “don’t drink, don’t drive, don’t drink when pregnant and please enjoy responsibly,” with only the Northwest Territories having labels warning of health effects.

5:35 Do we need warning labels on alcohol bottles as Canada outlines new consumption guidelines?

Some governments have relaxed marketing restrictions. For example, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives in their 2019 budget called for earlier opening hours for bars and restaurants, alcohol in city parks and advertising for free alcohol by casinos.

The provincial Treasury Department said in an emailed response that it was “aware” of the CCSA update, but did not comment on whether the provincial liquor company, the LCBO, would change its policies. The LCBO website has a link to the updated guidelines, but to find them you have to surf through three other topics before arriving at a link written in small type at the bottom of a page.

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Tim Stockwell, the former head of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, said the reality is that the issue is not a political priority.

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“They think about the economy, tourism and the lively nightlife in their cities. The last thing on policymakers’ minds is whether this commodity we’re so familiar with is doing any harm,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

The liquor giants remain important sources of revenue for their provinces, with the BC agency providing nearly $1.2 billion last fiscal year, Ontario’s LCBO about $2.4 billion, and Quebec’s SAQ a profit of $1.35 billion U.S. dollar.

A spokesman for Quebec’s finance minister said the province is not considering changes to the current practices of the province’s liquor company. “We trust that citizens will make the best decisions for their health given the latest knowledge on this topic,” said spokeswoman Claudia Loupret.

In Nova Scotia, Treasury Secretary Allan MacMaster said alcohol education materials “do not yet” reflect the new guidance. Beverley Ware, a spokeswoman for the province’s liquor company, said the Department of Health “plans to develop materials to educate Nova Scotians about the new alcohol and health guidance,” and the liquor retailer advocates sharing that information with its customers.

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1:46 Exploring alcohol-free living

A spokesman for the New Brunswick Department of Health said it supports the updated guidelines and is working on a communications plan to help New Brunswick residents understand them.

Siobhan Coady, the Treasury Secretary for Newfoundland and Labrador, said in an email that her officials are “always alert to new research,” noting that the province is already considering introducing alcohol-limitation policies — including an increase in the minimum price for beverage bars sold.

The Manitoba government did not say how it will incorporate the guidelines into its liquor marketing, but noted that its liquor company has a “DrinkSense” website that promotes responsible consumption.

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Meanwhile, none of the provinces reached by The Canadian Press said they are considering directly enacting the health warning label requirement, although the Northwest Territories already have a label warning of the risk to pregnant women and drivers, stating that alcohol ” can cause health problems.”

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Nunavut’s finance department said in an email that it was reviewing its alcohol regulations, including possible warning label requirements, and would “consider” the CCSA’s findings in its review.

David Morris, a spokesman for the Saskatchewan Liquor Authority, said the province’s liquor retail system will be fully private later this year and there are no plans to change the way private retailers in the province sell alcoholic beverages or market.

2:05 Changing the culture around alcohol

A spokesman for British Columbia’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction said the province would review the CCSA guidelines and “have more to say in the coming weeks.”

Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Yukon said it was up to Ottawa to take the lead in creating warning signs that discuss the risks of cancer, heart disease and stroke. Carolyn Bennett, the federal secretary of mental health and addiction, was unavailable for an interview and her office said she was reviewing the CCSA’s advice.

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Dan Malleck, a professor of health sciences at Brock University who has criticized the CCSA guidelines, said provinces are rightly reluctant to adopt the updated guidelines. “I think any sane government should ignore the guidelines completely,” he said in an email. “It’s bad research, ideologically driven and based on flimsy connections to adverse health.”

– With files from Allison Jones, Steve Lambert, Terri Theodore, Kelly Malone, Colette Derworiz, Hina Alam, Sidhartha Banerjee and Emily Blake.

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