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Researchers want Health Canada to post updated data on effects of drinking alcohol

Researchers behind the latest guidance on drinking alcohol want Health Canada to update findings on its website to inform the public about safe levels of consumption.
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Researchers behind the latest guidance on drinking alcohol want Health Canada to update findings on its website to inform the public about safe levels of consumption.

And federal Health Minister Jean-Yves agrees Canadians should have access to that “important piece of advice.”

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) released a Health Canada-funded report in January that says scientific evidence from around the world suggests no amount of alcohol is safe and low-risk is defined as two drinks per week, instead of two drinks per day, based on its previously recommended limits from 2011. But the old information remains on the federal agency’s site.

Duclos said people need access to the latest, robust data online to make decisions about drinking and their well-being.

“I think every Canadian deserves to know what the experts believe,” he said in an interview. “In the end, it’s for people to decide. They need to have easy access to the type of information that matters to them.”

However, Duclos said he could not say if the site would be updated. He deferred to Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett, but a spokeswoman for her said the minister was not available for comment.

In a statement, Bennett’s office said the government will “continue to engage Canadians on policies to address alcohol-related harms and to determine best approaches to disseminate information on risks related to alcohol use.”

“We believe it is essential to have this work … done before proceeding to finalizing specific guidance tools and methods of communication.”

However, Bennett has not committed to mandating warning labels on alcohol containers, as recommended in the report. She said in February that she hoped the industry would voluntarily take on the labelling issue.

Dr. Peter Butt, who co-chaired the CCSA’s guidance project, said basic information should be provided by Health Canada to show the federal government’s support of the project it paid for.

“We’re talking about a cultural and political shift that doesn’t happen overnight. But you know, people would like to see the government do the right thing,” he said of replacing the old guidance, which set weekly limits at 15 standard drinks for men and 10 for women.

“I’m sure Health Canada is grappling with this as individuals did when the guidance came out,” said Butt, adding the evidence researchers considered raises multiple questions: “What do we need to do to respond to this? What’s our responsibility? And where do we land in terms of tolerating risk — politically and economically as opposed to the right thing to do?”

He called alcohol a “complicated commodity” in the way it is marketed, even as a potentially high-risk product that is linked to health conditions and rising health-care costs.

Butt also questioned Bennett’s stance on leaving the issue of warning labels to the alcohol industry.

“This is not providing any guidance whatsoever. This is just going to kick the can further down the road. And what do you think the tobacco industry would have done if they were told to voluntarily place labels on their packages of cigarettes,” said Butt, who is also a clinical associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s department of family medicine. His clinical and research work focuses on substance use disorders.

Wine Growers of Canada has said it is developing a QR code that could voluntarily be placed on alcohol containers to direct consumers to a site that warns about alcohol’s association with increased long-term risk of serious illness and potential negative effects on relationships.

Butt called that approach equivalent to “infomercials” on websites aimed at furthering the financial interests of the industry rather than providing consumers with the information they need directly on alcohol containers.

“Alcohol is no ordinary commodity. It has a history. It’s embedded in our culture. There’s an economy attached to it,” he said.

Dr. Tim Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) at the University of Victoria, said the latest guidance is based on scientific data and could be used to set policies, such as federal taxes, physical availability of alcohol and treatment interventions to minimize its harms.

“I certainly hope Health Canada will step up and play an active role in at least in this one aspect of improving things,” he said of the agency posting the CCSA’s updated guidance, for which he provided expertise.

Preliminary results of CISUR’s latest edition of the ongoing Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation research project, which assesses how well provincial and federal governments are implementing policies, show all 13 provinces and territories are selling alcohol at a loss, meaning taxpayers are subsidizing sales, Naimi said.

“There’s lots to be done in Canada with respect to improving people’s health and well-being with respect to alcohol. And I think the guidance is an important part of reshaping that sort of conversation. So, of course, I’m concerned that the word gets out.”

The previous guidelines were associated with health harms, said Naimi, adding: “I can’t really explain why (Health Canada) wouldn’t at least post the new ones.”

Catherine Paradis, interim director of the CCSA, who, along with Butt, directed the guidance project, said plans are underway to launch an awareness campaign to educate the public online, through doctors’ offices and various agencies about the risks related to drinking alcohol.

“We’re receiving tons of requests,” she said of interest from organizations including the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Liver Foundation.