New alcohol guidelines recommend consumption well below the Yukon average
The nationwide rollout of the campaign to reduce total alcohol consumption began in January, but was hinted at last August with a draft of the Low Alcohol Consumption Guidelines.
The national initiative aligns with 2019 and 2020 recommendations submitted to the Yukon government to reduce alcohol consumption and change the culture of drug use in the Yukon.
The new national guidelines associate exceeding two drinks per week or two drinks per occasion with a “higher risk” to health. It came with the message that it is up to Canadians to choose for themselves the risks they are willing to tolerate.
In the Yukon, the average person was found to consume 3.8 drinks per occasion, and heavier drinkers reported 10.4 drinks per occasion in a 2015 health report. It has also been found that Yukoners experience more harm — cancer, violence, accidents, incarceration, homicide, suicide, aggression, family troubles and other injuries — than other Canadians.
A 2021 health report found little had changed since 2015, noting that “some indicators of alcohol harm have tended to worsen.”
The area has already been offered mitigation strategies in the 2020 Putting People First report, which the Territorial Government has already committed to implementing.
Recommendations include reducing off-sale hours; minimum price policy; and advertising restrictions. The report also notes that “First Nations people prefer an approach based on abstinence rather than harm reduction,” and cites that 39 percent of First Nations people in the Yukon have not had alcohol in the past year.
The Liberal government has invested heavily in harm reduction, earmarking $5.5 million for the drug use health emergency in its most recent budget speech.
Harm reduction has been a leading strategy for support services in the Yukon in recent history.
While recent national guidance focuses on reducing alcohol use, harm reduction focuses more on reducing the negative consequences of substance use while respecting the rights and autonomy of people who drink and use drugs.
Harm reduction is also a guiding philosophy of Connective, the nonprofit organization responsible for the Whitehorse Shelter and Housing First’s 16-unit Wood Street building and the men’s assisted living facility program operated out of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.
While the shelter’s accessible, person-centric approach was implemented with harm reduction in mind, residents said drug use on the property has created a space that is detrimental to people trying to stay sober.
Chris Kinch, Connective’s director of provincial and northern initiatives, spoke to the news on Jan. 13.
He explained how difficult it was to run programs with such a wide range of vulnerable people with varied addiction and mental health issues in one building, especially in the North.
“Nobody really knows what to do,” Kinch said.
READ MORE: New research guidelines lower recommended drinks per week
Will labels be next?
In Canada, it looks like these guidelines are just the first step as governments move to design environments that are touted to help people make healthy choices about their alcohol consumption.
A full reading of Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health: Final Report (2023) shows that mandatory labeling of all alcoholic beverages is likely to be the next step. “While Canada is a global leader in mandating improved labels on tobacco and cannabis packaging, alcohol containers are exempt from these requirements,” the report states.
Labeling would include basic information such as calories, ingredients, health warnings, and the number of “standard drinks” in each container. The argument follows that since consumers accept the premise of basic food and drug information, this labeling, which includes health warnings, will be acceptable to the Canadian public.
Warning labels on alcohol bottles were rejected in 2018 by John Streicker, the minister responsible for Yukon Liquor Corporation. The move made national headlines as the Liberal government lacked the courage to face the liquor industry’s looming lawsuits.
Now, years later, the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction report notes that improved labels are an “increasingly popular strategy”.
minimum unit price
There is also another possible extension with a different beat of persuasion that would hit drinkers in their wallets. The plan would be to use the “standard beverage” information on labels and tie the units of alcohol in a bottle to a minimum price per unit of alcohol for sale in both liquor stores and in bars and restaurants. This is known as the Minimum Price Per Unit (MUP). Setting the reserve price high enough has been shown to reduce consumption and damage. This means that cheap hard liquor products would no longer be cheap.
One of Canada’s leading researchers in this area, Tim Stockwell of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, says that every Canadian province has floor prices, but they don’t set them as efficiently as possible. “Some are close — Manitoba and Saskatchewan both have floor prices that are tiered by the strength of the alcohol. It is close to this minimum unit price.
“But the territories don’t do any of that.”
Stockwell spoke to the news last September and has a number of international articles and studies bearing his name. He thinks unit pricing is a good all-around solution that works on multiple fronts.
A move to a minimum price would mean that when consumers shopped for beer, they would be able to easily see that light beers cost less than higher proof beers. The strategy means overall price increases for alcohol. The theory is that as prices rise, consumption falls, reducing alcohol-related harm and health care costs, etc. Stockwell said that Scotland had moved on to this [MUP] in 2018 and Ireland in 2022.
He also explained that one of the beauties of the system is that everyone makes more money. retailers make more profit; Distributors make more money and government revenue increases. The additional government revenue can be used to pay for hospitals and treatment services. He says the pricing strategy is favored by the voting public over tax hikes overall.
READ MORE: ‘We can’t get sober here:’ Whitehorse offers an unlikely place to find sobriety, proponents say
READ MORE: Yukon First Nations Council sends 200 people out of territory for addiction treatment
READ MORE: Exit Options for People Not Adequately Exiting Treatment and Detox
Renewed focus on treatment and recovery
In British Columbia and Alberta, at least, voices are gaining ground for a renewed focus on addiction treatment. Alberta, with its once-independent Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC—a model previously studied for the Yukon), released its Alberta Mental Health and Addiction Advisory Council recommendations in March 2022. Her model for recovery-focused care includes harm reduction, but the focus is on recovery and the time it takes for an individual to constructively reorient themselves to lead responsible and productive lives.
Both this report and a British Columbia Center on Substance Use report, Strategies to Support Recovery: A Path forward (2018), cite the findings of Canadian and international studies that provide a comprehensive understanding of what life is like after recovery from addiction looks. The study, titled “Survey of Life in Recovery from Addiction in Canada,” was conducted in 2017. Similar studies have been conducted in Australia and the UK.
For observers of the ebb and flow of different strategic models favored by different proponents at different times, the Alberta model is recognizable. It uses the word “addiction” and speaks of addicts and alcoholics. It advocates treatment and long-term recovery. And using the word as well, others in the Yukon and across Canada seem reluctant to speak about the role of abstinence in healthy recovery.
Contact Lawrie Crawford at [email protected]
A beer is served at a facility in Whitehorse. (Yukon News file)