It happened, perhaps fittingly, on a May "two-four" weekend some years ago.
While waiting for a friend, I heard a commotion at a nearby carport and went to investigate. One car (female driver) had blocked another (male driver) from leaving. The man swore repeatedly at the woman in hijab. "Sakran – he's drunk," she told me. "He's going to hurt someone if he drives. I can't let him leave." His eyes were bloodshot; he reeked of alcohol.
They didn't know each other, yet she felt it was her duty to prevent him from driving. Her courage and compassion were remarkable. As we were about to call the police, another man arrived, took his friend's keys and promised to keep him off the road. It ended well. Perhaps a life had been saved.
Such is not always the case. The World Health Organization reported last week that more than three million people died worldwide from alcohol use in 2012 (up 32 per cent from 2011) related to violence, trauma and illness. The report urges governments to do more to mitigate societal damage.
Canadians dubiously rank near the top when it comes to years of life lost due to alcohol. A comprehensive global 2013 study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) also found that Canadians drink 50 per cent more than the global average, with almost one in four (above age 15) engaged in dangerous binge drinking.
While Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's episodes of public intoxication have been fodder for late-night television, the underlying issue of addiction is anything but a laughing matter. Ann Dowsett Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, describes alcohol as the new tobacco. She has called for a national dialogue to address the stigma of alcohol addiction.
In a separate Canadian 2013 report, CAMH has identified alcohol as one of the greatest public-health threats to this country. Yet, according to the WHO report, there is no federal plan to address this national threat.
The social and financial damages are staggering. Consider that alcohol consumption leads to more than 200 types of diseases (such as liver cirrhosis) and injuries (ranging from car accidents to suicide). The National Institute of Health unequivocally states that heavy or regular alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, colon and rectum; risk increases with the amount consumed.
CAMH puts a price of $14.6-billion on combined health-care and law-enforcement costs and lost productivity. These costs incurred by provincial governments actually outweigh the money they make from alcohol's sale.
CAMH advocates key harm-reduction policies, such as setting prices to discourage excessive drinking, indexing alcohol prices to inflation, reducing availability, raising the legal drinking age and using warning labels (akin to tobacco warnings). Unfortunately, provincial governments have been lax in implementing such policies. Some have actually increased availability: Ontario's Liberals plan to put liquor kiosks in some grocery stores, while Montreal will allow a few downtown bars to serve all night on weekends during June.
The most alarming trend lies in the 15-24 age group, where excessive consumption is becoming more common.
The overall message from CAMH: It's time for Canadians to reduce consumption. Whether it's the 80 per cent who drink, or the 20 per cent who abstain, we can all do our part with courage and compassion. Just remember the example of the woman in the carport.