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Photo illustration: The Globe and Mail. Sources: Getty Images.

Joshua Knelman is a writer based in Toronto. His most recent book is Firebrand: A Tobacco Lawyer’s Journey.

Canada’s relationship to alcohol was officially shaken (and not just stirred) when a government advisory body, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), announced its stiff two-drinks-a-week recommendation for responsible citizens earlier this year.

Across the country brows were furrowed, particularly those of bar and restaurant owners, alcohol company reps and liquor store managers who eyed their bottom lines.

Similarly, millions of Canadians who knock back a couple of casual drinks during the cinq-a-sept hours tilted their glasses quizzically at the news. Cheers?

The two-drink weekly limit seemed drastic compared with the 10-to-15 drinks a week allotted when the CCSA guidelines were first introduced in 2011.

Max Krangle, former legal counsel for two of the largest tobacco companies in the world, says he wonders whether updating the guideline was an attempt to push alcohol into tobacco territory in regards to its special status as a legal, yet dangerous, consumer good.

“During my time with tobacco companies, we certainly did reach out to other industries – including alcohol – to gauge whether they could add support to our stance related to freedom of expression and the sale of our product,” he told me. This was in the mid-2000s when governments around the world were attempting to regulate, legislate and, in some cases, ban the product from use.

“Our point to the alcohol industry was this: if the government can do this to our product, they can do this to yours, too.”

As Mr. Krangle notes, no other industry – Big Alcohol included – stepped into the ring to help Big Tobacco fend off the intensifying government attack.

Now, in Canada, updating responsible alcohol-consumption guidelines may be the first ingredient needed to start the delicate process of shifting our social attitude toward drinking.

Meanwhile, stakeholders in the alcohol industry might be advised to re-examine the successful cocktail of policies, legislation and health campaigns deployed to drastically reduce tobacco use in Canada over the past three decades.

This would provide a playbook for any government prioritizing a reduction in national rates of alcohol consumption. In fact, the leap to treating alcohol as we do tobacco isn’t as large as one may think:

“As with tobacco, age-based restrictions on the sale of alcohol already exist, and just like cigarette smoke, alcohol is a known carcinogen – proven to cause cancer,” says Mr. Krangle. “Basically, there is no safe level when consuming that level of carcinogen, so the number of drinks a health-conscious citizen should purchase a week is technically zero, from that perspective.”

When smoking was initially linked with lung cancer in the 1960s, the government had virtually no tobacco controls, cigarettes were freely advertised and many doctors smoked. Today, it could be argued that government forces have seized control over every aspect of tobacco’s distribution and sales while halting all advertising and profiting from billions of dollars in tax revenue.

Conveniently, when it comes to the consumer market for alcohol, our provincial governments already tightly control, and manage in some cases, its distribution and sale – a business relationship dating back to the era of alcohol prohibition, which stretched well into the 1920s.

Almost 100 years later, even as our attitude toward alcohol may seem more European, government-run alcohol retail empires such as the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) still function as near-monopolies on our access to booze – the provincial equivalent of mom and dad’s liquor cabinet: unlocked perhaps, but closely monitored.

As a kid in the 1970s, Mr. Krangle would accompany his father to the LCBO counter, where, instead of picking spirits and wine off the shelf as we do today, a customer had to fill out a form and ask a clerk to fill the order. “It was way more conservative an approach back then,” he says.

Over his legal career in tobacco, which ended in 2010 when he retired that industry and returned to Canada, Mr. Krangle witnessed the formation of a consumer paradox around the sale of tobacco. While one department of government (health) will warn against smoking, another (finance) will happily absorb massive revenues from taxing the sales of that same product.

Now, alcohol could be set to be consumed by that paradox. While both the federal government and provinces benefit from alcohol tax revenue, currently there is one level (federal health, for now) warning us to drastically cut back on drinking while another level (most provincial liquor boards) is fully invested in the business of marketing and selling Canadians booze (e.g. the LCBO’s Food and Drink magazine).

“Do you think Galen Weston would ever release a statement to the media advising Canadians to eat less?” asks Mr. Krangle rhetorically. “Of course not. In fact, no one has more to lose with lower alcohol sales than our own government. We can see the conditions brewing for alcohol to follow tobacco’s consumer fate.”

Still, while many Canadians may feel that two drinks a week is an outrageously low target, our national tobacco strategy remains a success story, earning Canada a place as a global leader at reducing its percentage of smokers.

Canada’s successful tobacco-reduction strategy is proof that should they decide to, governments across Canada could use a similar playbook to tackle alcohol consumption rates: warning labels, legislation, advertisement and sponsorship restriction, public-health campaigns, as well as increased taxes on the product itself.

It all starts, though, with an adjustment in perception. Remember, our restaurants, bars and airplanes were once cloudy with smoke. In just one generation, governments and health authorities managed to change our relationship to one of the most popular consumer products ever created, with rates of smoking in Canada sinking from more than 50 per cent of the adult population in 1965, down to about 13 per cent in 2022.

In the response to COVID-19, we’ve seen how fast our behaviour can be altered when public health, policy makers and governments at all levels work together to move the social dial. If we begin to view alcohol consumption as a perceived threat to our national health care, and the future of our citizens, the government may try to change our relationship to it – and maybe in 30 years that cart rolling along the airplane aisle may not even stock alcohol. And who knows, maybe we’ll feel better for the change.

In the meantime, perhaps those wonderful toasts we conjure when raising a glass in good company may have to be delivered with a sly sense of irony: “A votre santé!”