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Pushing Alcohol While Health Experts Say Risk-Free Drinking Is a Myth

This week brought the release of drinking guidelines for Canadians that are a distinct break from past ones.

Ontario’s government-owned liquor stores offer glossy magazines, discounts and airline loyalty points to shoppers.Credit…Ian Austen/The New York Times

As I wrote in an earlier Canada Letter when the preliminary guidelines were released, they no longer offer recommendations on how much to drink. Instead, they now rank the levels of risk created by different levels of drinking. And, as my colleague Michael Levenson reports, they say the only risk-free level is not drinking at all.

It’s not just Canada’s experts who have come to this conclusion. Dana G. Smith wrote about the growing international consensus that even small amounts of alcohol can bring health consequences.

[Read: Canada’s New Guidelines for Alcohol Say ‘No Amount’ Is Healthy]

[Read: Even a Little Alcohol Can Harm Your Health]

Along with the guidelines, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction also published a series of recommendations for governments. They include “strengthening regulations on alcohol advertising and marketing, increasing restrictions on the physical availability of alcohol and adopting minimum prices.”

The panel of experts also called for changes in labeling. As they note, it’s almost impossible to figure out if what you’ve bought or ordered is a “standard drink.” Beers, for example, come in a variety of sizes of cans and bottles, as well as a range of alcohol levels.

In addition to labeling how many standard drinks are in a bottle or a can, the experts also suggest that health warning labels be added, a step the alcohol industry strongly opposes.

Much of this, of course, has echoes of how Canada dealt with tobacco over the last few decades.

New guidelines say that there is no risk-free level for drinking.Credit…Ian Austen/The New York Times

Looking back, I’m struck by how Canada’s approach to alcohol and cigarettes has almost reversed since I was a student back in the late 1970s.

At that time, I worked part-time in the last of what the Liquor Control Board of Ontario called conventional stores. Back then, the L.C.B.O. took the “control” part of its name seriously. Its older stores did everything possible to make people avoid them. Aside from some dusty display bottles of selected wines, all of the merchandise was hidden away behind a counter. Customers had to search out what they wanted to buy on lists of everything in the store that were behind glass panels, and write down the product’s name, brand number (Mateus rosé was 1086 B) and price. Then shoppers passed their slips to a cashier who, after receiving payment, turned it over to a clerk like me who fetched and bagged the goods.

I must confess that my colleagues and I were sometimes less than friendly. We were also repeatedly reminded not to give recommendations or advice to customers — they were strictly on their own.

But, conversely, smoking in offices and shops, including L.C.B.O. stores, was rampant at that time. Cigarette makers sponsored sports and cultural events, and their ads and products dominated corner stores and even some pharmacies.

Now it’s cigarettes that are hidden away in stores behind blank cabinets, and they come in generic, government-mandated packaging with gruesome photos of tobacco’s health effects. All forms of advertising by the tobacco advertising are a distant memory.

In contrast, at the L.C.B.O. today, control has been dislodged by aggressive marketing and promotion. Many of its stores are smartly designed, with attractive wooden shelving and lighting similar to what you might find in a costly clothing boutique. The board produces a free glossy magazine about drinks, and food to serve with them, and offers customers airline loyalty points and discounts.

It’s not alone. When I cross the river to Gatineau, Quebec, the provincially owned Société des alcools du Québec stores seem to be in a competition with their Ontario counterparts when it comes to pleasing design, attractiveness and product promotion and discounting.

The development disturbs David Sweanor, the chairman of the advisory committee for the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics. Mr. Sweanor was one of a small group of people who pushed the federal government to rein in tobacco marketing, and now he’s concerned about alcohol promotion.

“At the very least, we need to have a conversation about this,” he told me. “We have a lot of information that the more available that you make psychoactive substances, the more normalized you make them, the more they’re going to be used.”

Mr. Sweanor emphasized that he’s not a prohibitionist. But he would like to see liquor stores dial down promotion and make serious efforts at education. Among other things, he also wants them to share customer data with health and addiction researchers and to reach out to shoppers who clearly have alcohol dependency problems.

“Will they spot the people who have a problem and will they try to to do something?” he asked. “Or will they just give them another discount to buy three bottles rather than two the next time they come in?”

In an email, the L.C.B.O. told me that its marketing and promotional efforts are based on research in which “customers have told us they are interested to know what is available and to learn more about product features.”

When asked if it plans any review to assess the health implications of its operations, the board replied, “We champion responsible retailing practices and foster a culture of moderation to help Ontarians make responsible drinking choices.”

That’s not how Mr. Sweanor views the way the L.C.B.O. operates. And he says the government-owned retailer’s approach is incompatible with the costs alcohol brings to provincial health care systems.

“Governments and government-owned entities are a big part of the problem,” he said. “They’re marketing alcohol, they’re promoting alcohol, while taxes on alcohol don’t reflect risks and they don’t reflect health goals.”


Trans Canada

A raffle at Mikaela Woods and Benjamin Blake’s stag and doe party on New Year’s Eve in Hamilton, Ontario.Credit…Ian Willms for The New York Times
  • Shivani Gonzalez has written an entertaining look at the pre-wedding fund-raising parties known in Ontario as stag and does.

  • It is among the strangest recent art attribution cases. In 2013, a former prison guard from Thunder Bay, Ontario, and an art gallery owner sued Peter Doig, the prominent Scottish-born artist, for, in their view, falsely disowning a painting of a desert scene they claim he painted while jailed in Canada. It was signed “Pete Doig.” That’s just a small portion of the tale. Graham Bowley reports that this week a judge ended up awarding Mr. Doig, who has never been jailed anywhere, $2.5 million.

  • In the latest result of searches of the grounds of former residential schools for burial sites of Indigenous children, the Anishinabe of Wauzhushk Onigum Nation said this week that ground penetrating radar had shown evidence of 171 “plausible” grave sites in Kenora, Ontario. The community has decided not to exhume any remains.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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