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Canadians travelling to Brazil for the World Cup have been warned to exercise "extreme caution" because of dangers including street muggings at gunpoint and sexual assault. But visiting fans' safety may be at risk even inside Brazil's exorbitantly priced stadiums, experts say.

Starting Thursday, Brazil will allow alcohol sales at soccer games for the first time in 11 years. As a result, "the level of safety in those venues will be compromised," said Dr. Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C.

Stockwell made the comment in response to a new report in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) cautioning that the 2014 World Cup "will be as much a festival of alcohol as it is of football [soccer]."

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The report lambastes the alcohol industry, along with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), for pressuring Brazil to permit beer sales at World Cup games.

Brazil banned alcoholic beverages at soccer games in 2003, in an attempt to curtail brutal violence between rival fans. Despite the ban, Brazil led the world in soccer-related deaths from 1998 to 2008, NPR reported.

Nevertheless, FIFA officials have refused to allow Brazil to dilute the beer-guzzling sport culture promoted by FIFA's commercial partners in the alcohol industry, wrote BMJ report author Jonathan Gornall.

Back in 2012, the BBC quoted FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke as saying, "Alcoholic drinks are part of the FIFA World Cup, so we're going to have them. Excuse me if I sound a bit arrogant but that's something we won't negotiate."

The alcohol industry's clout extends to the British government, according to the BMJ report. Up until late 2013, British politicians maintained that the 2014 World Cup was not an event of high enough national significance to justify relaxing its liquor-licensing laws.

Earlier this year, however, lobbying pressure from the alcohol industry forced the U.K. government to make "a humiliating U-turn," Gornall wrote. Now, pubs and bars in England and Wales will be allowed to open until 1 a.m. for England matches that start at 8 p.m. or later.

England's emergency physicians are reportedly dreading the World Cup. "British society does not deal well with alcohol, and as a consequence it pays a very high price in terms of lives damaged and health-care costs," The Independent quoted Dr. Clifford Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine, as saying.

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Meanwhile, viewers worldwide will be bombarded with televised close-ups of fans swigging beer, in addition to stadium banners and broadcast ads from Budweiser and other sponsors designed to establish lifelong brand awareness and loyalty.

The cultural association between sports and alcohol consumption is far from harmless, said B.C.'s Stockwell, who referred to the World Cup as "the most watched event on the planet." For impressionable children and teenagers, he said, there is strong evidence that exposure to alcohol advertising increases the likelihood they'll be drawn to alcohol and "experience problems with it later."

He added that Canadians need few reminders of the violence and destruction that can result when a game doesn't go the way a home crowd wants. "The Stanley Cup riots are still relatively fresh in our memories," Stockwell said.

Here are some startling facts from the BMJ report:

  • In the 2010 World Cup, assault-related emergency-room visits in England increased by 38 per cent on the days England matches were played
  • Budweiser’s sponsorship of the 2010 World Cup increased its beer sales by 36 per cent in Britain alone
  • According to FIFA regulations, Brazil must waive tax on any profits made by FIFA’s commercial sponsors (primarily beverage companies) during the World Cup, depriving Brazil of an estimated revenue equivalent to $570-million (Canadian).

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