Ann Dowsett Johnston is the author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol. Catherine Paradis is senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.
Five years ago, long before we worried about protective masks and hand sanitizer and standing six feet apart, then-Chief Public Health Officer Gregory Taylor warned Canadians of a serious public health crisis. The threat was alcohol – specifically, the way we drink. He tried to sound the alarm, but few people paid attention. What right did he have poking into our private business? We would drink as we always had. And we did.
Cut to today. Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam is a household name, a folk hero of sorts in many circles. As we all focus on “planking the curve,” few are paying attention to how much we are drinking. In fact, alcohol sales are soaring across the country, up 40 per cent in British Columbia and 70 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador. As the bulk of all businesses have shut down amid the pandemic, provincial liquor outlets, deemed essential services, are booming. According to the Canadian government, an essential service is defined as any service, facility or activity that is or will be necessary for the safety or security of the public. Whether or not liquor stores meet that definition is debatable.
Canadians have stockpiled their beer, wine and spirits just as fast as their toilet paper. Social-media platforms are full of predictable memes: trunks packed with liquor, with the caption “Life just got real! Three weeks with the kids!” Two weeks ago, The New York Times ran a piece under the headline Getting Tipsy at Home in Your Underwear, referencing the Finnish tradition of kalsarikannit – which roughly translates to “pantsdrunk.” A survey revealed that Canadians, too, are drinking more owing to the lack of a regular schedule; with little or no distinction between weekdays and weekends, Canadians are consuming with gusto – with predictable consequences.
The increased presence of alcohol can strain difficult household dynamics, especially with individuals who exhibit problematic behaviour when intoxicated. One consequence is domestic violence. Reports from around the world indicate that the pandemic has already resulted in a significant spike in abuse cases. In China, police saw a threefold increase reported in February over the previous year. Local family support centres saw a rise in the severity of domestic violence, as well as eruptions among a broad spectrum of relations and age groups – between parents and children, between siblings.
The decision to keep liquor stores open during the pandemic further contributes to the costs of alcohol use at a time when communities are making more demands on public resources. According to the Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms report, alcohol use in Canada costs $14.8-billion annually in terms of health care, lost productivity, criminal justice and other tolls on society.
After years of unregulated advertising, we live in a surround-sound environment: Alcohol is how we relax, reward, unwind. Many also rely on alcohol to cope with difficult emotions, challenging life events and stress. Among the 11.6 per cent of Canadian adults reporting an anxiety or mood disorder, about one in four “self-medicates” or reduces their symptoms with alcohol.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to challenge the decision to call liquor outlets “essential services” without sounding like a prohibitionist. Service providers have expressed concerns about the impact closing outlets would have on people with an alcohol use disorder. What politician would want to take ownership of cutting access to Canadians’ favourite drug?
Besides, we all know this is a source of revenue for provincial governments. In 2016-17, provincial and territorial governments earned an average of $411 per person over the legal drinking age from the control and sale of alcoholic beverages. Closing liquor stores would cause a significant loss of revenue at a time when public-sector spending is increasing exponentially.
By designating liquor stores an essential service, governments have revealed how deeply our alcogenic culture is entrenched. In Canada and around the world, making sure people have access to alcohol may be overshadowing concerns about increased drinking and its contribution to alcohol use disorders and domestic violence. Very low alcohol literacy among Canadians about the harms of alcohol exacerbates this risk.
What is the responsible option then? To close all liquor outlets? Maybe not. Continuous access to alcohol may be a matter of life or death for those with an alcohol use disorder. Meanwhile, roughly 20 per cent of Canadians have increased their alcohol consumption at a time when one in 10 women is very or extremely concerned about the possibility of violence in the home.
Balancing the risks associated with keeping liquor stores open and the potential problems of closing them, there is no doubt that keeping them open was the correct decision. Had they been closed, the result would have been involuntary withdrawal among dependent individuals, who may have turned to non-beverage forms of alcohol. But the necessity of that decision has revealed that Canadians are hooked.
This is a health problem and a social issue as well. Now may not be the time to deal with this, but make no mistake: Cheap, readily available and heavily marketed alcohol comes with a price. We have a Tobacco and Vaping Products Act and we have a Cannabis Act. We need an Alcohol Act that addresses accessibility, affordability and advertising.
Those governments that have just declared alcohol essential will need to increase their public education efforts to remind Canadians that alcohol is no ordinary commodity. We must take responsibility to lower our risk. For those of us working in the field of alcohol use and addiction, the “essential” designation has been a stark reminder of the challenges ahead to implement alcohol policy focused on reducing harms. When government is ready to tackle this issue, we’re reporting for duty.
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