British Columbia Gets the Silver in Swilling (Nunavut Gets the Gold)

The crowds were in high spirits on Robson Street at 10:00 PM on February 18. Canada had just won its third gold medal of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. A line of RCMP officers stood at relaxed attention surveying the noisy but peaceful revellers. According to one officer, the police were on standby until 2:00 A.M. when drunken people would emerge in large numbers from bars and restaurants. Then, he suggested, the police might have to swing into action.


The Vancouver Police have announced an increased presence downtown because of public drunkenness. Most of us are thinking, “So what?” That’s expected; the Olympics are a big party and everyone is having fun. Drinking and intoxication will return to usual levels on March 1, and only a few people will be worse off for Olympic excesses. Given the hundreds of millions of dollars already invested in security, this won’t add much to the bill.


That may be true, but a worrisome long-term trend underlies the Olympic booze blip. In a 2009 report, The Centre for Addictions Research at the University of Victoria  estimated that adults in B.C. have increased their average alcohol intake by 11% since 2002. This doesn’t seem like much, but B.C. now has, after Nunavut, the highest alcohol intake per person of any province or territory. During the past decade, drinking grew faster in B.C. than across Canada.


Alcohol is enjoyable. It enhances social occasions. Consumed in small amounts over time, it has some health benefits. Women who drink no more than one drink per day have a lower risk of heart attack or stroke. For men, the limit is two per day. Above that amount, though, toxic effects begin to emerge, such as increased rates of cancer, liver failure, and alcoholism. Research shows that binge drinking of 4 or 5 drinks at a time, which some of the Granville Street partiers are doing, carries risks such as brain damage, stomach inflammation, assault, and car crashes.


Getting drunk may be a rite of passage. Maybe for some it’s worth the risk, and most young people aren’t thinking about the wider consequences. But more adults need to. Here are some frightening facts: the researchers at University of Victoria reported a 10% rise in alcohol-related deaths in B.C. from 2002 through 2007, and a 39% rise in liver disease, much of which is caused by alcoholism.


The cost of problem drinking to taxpayers is huge; the estimated total for Canada in 2002 was 14.5 billion dollars. Health care is the biggest part of this bill, and law enforcement is second. The Canadian Center on Substance abuse looked at government costs and revenues from alcohol sales in 2002, the most recent report available, and found that governments came up short. Alcohol taxes don’t pay for alcohol problems.


In B.C., 2002 was a turning point in alcohol policy. The B.C. Liberals began closing B.C. Liquor Stores, the government monopoly, and allowed private retail outlets to sell alcohol. The current rise in alcohol consumption followed.


Probably not, given that the same trend occurred in Alberta after that province privatized all retail liquor sales in 1994.


Alcohol marketing is still highly regulated, but private sellers are driven to promote sales, not warn about hazards of over-drinking. Restaurant profits are also tied to alcohol sales. The government is, despite the overall loss, addicted to tax revenues from alcohol. So the incentives to pour booze are immense.


Research shows that when it comes to drinking, people are very sensitive to price. Even an increase of 10 cents per drink could reduce harmful drinking, which could lower costs for cleaning up messes such as Granville Street at 2:00 A.M.  Because the PST is now 10 per cent for alcohol instead of 7 per cent as it is for other products, the coming HST could lead to a 3 per cent drop in net alcohol price. That would lead to bigger problems and higher costs for the police, the health care system, and the taxpayer


Based on this, the report from The Centre for Addictions Research included some suggestions to temper risky drinking in B.C. by means of pricing. Although the recommendations didn’t include an overall price increase, the media response was almost as though they had promoted prohibition. As we recover from the Olympic hangover, let’s have a sober discussion about how to throw a party without having to invite so many RCMP officers.





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