Opinion: The healthy debate over Canada’s new drinking guidance

Feb 24 2023, 1:00 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Andrea Seale, who is the CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society

Over the last few weeks, alcohol took front and centre stage across international news networks as the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction released the new Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health.

The buzz was un-ignorable, sparking lively debates. Given how deeply embedded into our social fabric alcohol has become, this isn’t surprising.

In fact, these conversations – heated or not – are crucial to the success of the guidance as they lead to each person having a new piece of information to consider when they reach for that drink.

One of the key goals of the new guidance is to help people make informed decisions for their health. Yes, the guidance gives a clear picture of the serious health effects of alcohol and says that less alcohol is better.

But for the first time, national health guidance has taken a whole health approach, giving people a holistic picture of alcohol-related health risks. It’s not about prohibition – it’s about empowerment and helping each one of us to make the best decision for ourselves with evidence-based, easy-to-understand information.

This is a significant shift from many public health campaigns of the past that took more of a “no tolerance” approach. It’s even a shift from the alcohol guidelines last updated over a decade ago, which divided public health experts and cancer control communities with drinking recommendations that exceeded safe amounts for cancer risk reduction.

This new guidance leads with a compassionate focus and commitment to reducing stigma, providing health information and advice based on expert knowledge, evidence, and data across a wide range of health concerns.

If we expect people to change their drinking behaviour, we first must provide credible, unbiased information about alcohol’s health risks. With that knowledge, people can make informed decisions on whether to drink and how much.

That’s something every Canadian deserves. 

The new guidance is a strong start, but it will only be effective if it reaches Canadians. The more voices we have talking about the guidance, the more progress we can make toward preventing cancer and other health consequences of alcohol.

The troubling reality is that most people either aren’t aware of the detrimental health effects of alcohol or aren’t keen to listen. In fact, over 40% of Canadians are not aware that alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer and most don’t realize they are drinking unsafe amounts.

Alcohol is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen and is estimated to be one of the top three causes of cancer deaths worldwide. Drinking any type of alcohol increases your risk for at least nine different types of cancer: oral, pharyngeal, laryngeal, breast, colorectal, esophageal, liver, stomach, and pancreatic cancers.

In 2015, an estimated 3,300 new cancer cases diagnosed in Canada were due to alcohol consumption and if that trend continues, the number will triple by 2042.

But, if everyone in Canada who reported drinking daily reduced the number of drinks by one a day, we could prevent tens of thousands of new cases of cancer. 

Despite these sobering statistics, most people don’t treat alcohol like the cancer-causing substance that it is. As much as some may not want to admit it, this needs to change. The less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk of cancer. 

The first step is to start the conversation, which has been ignited by the release of the new guidance. To keep the dialogue going, we need strong leadership from governments to endorse the guidelines and make policy changes around alcohol that promote population health and promote education of the risks of alcohol, including mandatory labelling.

We need community organizations, who share our commitment to health promotion and disease prevention, to help amplify this important life-saving and life-changing information. And we need people to keep talking.

We need to normalize socializing without alcohol or with less alcohol because we all have a right to know about the health and safety of the products we buy and consume so that we can make informed decisions for ourselves.

If you are ready to learn more, check out Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health.

Try keeping track of your drinks to get a better understanding of exactly how much you’re drinking. Start by setting reasonable goals if giving up alcohol altogether doesn’t feel realistic to you. If you want to kickstart a change today, consider taking on the challenge of an alcohol-free month.

Whatever you decide to do, I hope we all keep talking. A simple conversation may just end up helping someone make a healthier decision that could have a life-long impact.

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