Toronto Public Health is calling on the city to take action to mitigate the risks of the provincial government’s plan to increase alcohol access in Ontario.
The Toronto Board of Health on Monday adopted recommendations made by the city’s medical officer of health to review how the changes would affect Toronto and to “determine appropriate actions,” as well as a request that the provincial Ministry of Finance include Toronto Public Health in its consultations to reduce the social risks of greater alcohol access.
“Public policy has to be thoughtful, it has to be nuanced, it cannot be based on buck-a-beer slogans,” Councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the Board of Health, said in an interview.
In its April budget, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government announced it would allow tailgating at sporting events (including on postsecondary campuses), let municipalities allow alcohol in designated public spaces (including parks) and increase hours of service for alcohol, among other changes.
“While the government trusts Ontarians to make smart, mature and responsible choices when it comes to alcohol use, it maintains a strong commitment to social responsibility,” Ministry of Health spokeswoman Anna Miller said in an e-mailed statement Monday. She added that includes “supporting the safe consumption of alcohol, working to prevent addiction to alcohol and helping those who require treatment” through public education and funding for ConnexOntario, a confidential service that provides around-the-clock assistance and referrals to provincial addiction treatment services.
“The government is committed to developing and implementing a comprehensive and connected mental health and addictions strategy in Ontario, with a historic new investment of $3.8-billion that will support those struggling with addiction and provide them with the help they need,” she added.
While Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, called on the Ministry of Finance to include Toronto Public Health in its consultations on how to reduce the social costs related to greater access to alcohol, the ministry did not specify in a statement who would be part of the consultations.
“The government is undertaking a comprehensive review of the alcohol sector to inform its plan to expand the sale of beverage alcohol into corner, grocery and big-box stores,” Peter Spadoni, the ministry’s manager of issues, media, correspondence and research services, said in an e-mail Monday. “We will continue working with stakeholders to focus our efforts on modernizing Ontario’s well-established beverage alcohol sector.”
According to data from the Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms project, in 2014 there were an estimated 14,800 deaths related to alcohol use in Canada, the highest for substance use apart from tobacco. In Ontario the same year, there were 5,100 deaths from alcohol.
Research has also shown that extending hours for alcohol sales is related to an increase in related harms. A 2007 study in Ontario found that there was an increase in injuries such as falls and assaults when alcohol trade hours were extended from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m.
A study released by the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Monday found that men and women who abstained from alcohol entirely reported having the highest level of mental well-being.
Dr. de Villa said some measures the city could take to mitigate risks related to alcohol include public awareness campaigns and practices such as ensuring that water is readily available when alcohol is being served so individuals can stay hydrated. She added that locations for alcohol sales can be assessed for safety, for example, ensuring that they are in well-lit areas.
“The provincial government has done this kind of assessment and has certain protocols for cannabis retail locations," Dr. de Villa said. "There are some very specific examples that they can rely on in terms of informing what might a site or community safety assessment look like.”
Having adopted Dr. de Villa’s recommendations, the next step is for the city to develop a framework to guide the various municipal departments with respect to the changes in regulations, Mr. Cressy said. He added the city would be responsible for approving extended hours for alcohol at special events and licensing parks for alcohol consumption.