Canada's new guidance on alcohol and health was released on January 17th, 2023. We asked our students two questions:
What was/is your reaction to Canada's new guidance on alcohol and health?
With this new guidance in mind, how can campuses support students in creating healthier drinking habits?
The University is Failing Us: Why We Need More Programs for Safe Consumption When I first arrived at StFX, I was unaware of a lot of the toxic drinking culture that was present on campus. While I had heard stories about the culture, I never fully believed them until I was here in my first week and was immersed in the typical “frosh week” activities that continued for most of my first year here. I felt like there was a gap in my knowledge about the effects that the toxic drinking culture would have on my health, and I wasn’t completely informed about the risks of high alcohol consumption. I think Canada’s new guidelines on alcohol and health are extremely beneficial in developing programs that can help students feel comfortable, safe, and informed in university culture. These programs also need to be focused on the entire spectrum of alcohol consumption, as outlined in the new guidelines, rather than the current strategies that are focused on high alcohol consumption.
In developing programs that would help to inform and engage students in healthy drinking culture, I think it is really important to have at least two types of informative approaches present on campus. The first option would be very similar to what is already present in the training modules and seminars that we already have implemented for students, they just need to be presented in a more hands-on way. This technique would be a risk-based approach. This aspect of the intervention would work to inform university students about the effects of alcohol on the brain and the body while promoting healthy and safe drinking practices. However, what is currently missing is a focus on different cultures and pressures from outside factors. We need to work to debunk stereotypes and myths surrounding drinking on campus as well as inform people about the physical health risks. This can be done through seminars, activities using alcohol impairment goggles or online demonstrations on how to properly mix drinks to try to diminish over-consumption. In addition to this, simpler interventions can be mandated such as hanging informational posters in academic buildings and handing out pamphlets during orientation week.
However, these programs alone would not be enough in making sure students feel safe and know how to engage in healthy alcohol consumption practices. What is implemented hasn’t changed our culture. So, in addition to this informational and culturally based approach, we also need a community-based alcohol approach to inform people and have support on campus for people who: have struggled with second-hand, or primary alcohol stressors, looking for information on alcohol consumption and its effects, or are wondering about the toxic alcohol culture on campus and are looking for tactics to avoid it. This could include having health professionals or people in the community discuss the effects that alcohol has on the body, or conversely, the effects that it has had on their own lives. Also, a really great way to address this would be to have people on campus, such as counsellors or rehabilitation support services that specialize in drug and alcohol use to allow people to seek help when they feel that they need it. These services would reduce stigma as well, which is huge when discussing drugs, alcohol, and university culture. Engaging community members and giving students more support on campus would not only help with increasing resilience among the student body but also decrease the culture on campus that pushes many students to adopt these drinking habits that support and cause negative health outcomes. It would help people feel safer and more supported by the university, which is essential, especially concerning first-year students who are nervous about coming to campus or being away from their families for the first time
My initial reaction to reading the new guidelines was slightly shocked. The new guidelines are drastically different from the old ones, which I had grown accustomed to hearing about in my health courses. The new guidelines reduce the number of drinks considered “low risk” per week from 10 for women, and 15 for men, to just 2. This difference is stark, but the new guidelines are much more detailed. They specify the exact number of drinks considered low, medium, and high risk, and outline the risks associated with each of them. For me personally, it made me reevaluate whether I consider myself to be within the healthy guidelines. The new guidelines also include the kinds of risks that come with each new level of drinking, such as the increased risk of breast and colon cancer. Seeing it laid out like that helped me to make sense of the damage of alcohol on the body, which seemed entirely hypothetical before. The new guidelines also do not differentiate limits between men and women. However, they highlight that drinking poses different dangers for each gender and sex. Women’s risk of developing cancers is more greatly affected by alcohol than men’s, and men are at a higher risk of injury and violence as a result of drinking. I think that this way of presenting the risks is much more clear and comprehensive.
I think that the best way that campuses can support students in creating healthier drinking habits is by getting the information out there, and I think that social media is the most effective way to do that. By spreading information online via campus social media sites, they will reach the greatest number of students. This will bring awareness to the dangers of drinking and encourage students to reevaluate their amount of perceived risk. Campuses can also hold more “dry” events, providing students with options for activities to socialize without the expectation of drinking.
As a student at Saint Francis Xavier University, the release of the Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health Report has initiated reflection upon myself, and perhaps some feelings of distress. The old guidelines for women included no more than two drinks a night, or ten drinks a week. Being submersed in a culture where recreation depends heavily upon binge drinking practices, I used to think to myself “at least I am drinking under 10 drinks a week”, blissfully disregarding the first half of the low risk drinking guideline. However, the new low risk drinking guidelines leave no room for misinterpretation and making excuses. The updated low risk drinking guidelines recommended two drinks a week or less, to avoid alcohol related health consequences for yourself and others. This is a substantial decrease in comparison to the old guidelines.
The release of these guidelines produces fear in myself as a health student. I fear for those older adults whom have been heavily drinking throughout their lifespan, and will laugh off these drinking guidelines. It is certainly harder to change a behaviour once it has been engrained into a habit. I fear for the university students, myself included, whom have been subjected to a culture where binge drinking is not only tolerated, but encouraged and seen as an accomplishment. The amount of times I have heard fellow students bragging about how much they had to drink over the weekend is too much to count. The health impacts of a generation that has been raised on drinking alcohol will creep up on our healthcare system, and already has.
In light of being purely pessimistic, I also would like to mention the hope that the release of these low risk drinking guidelines brings. Having already gained mass media attention, I am hopeful that the general public will become educated on the health dangers of drinking alcohol. While it might be difficult to change the behaviours of certain populations, it is never too early to educate future generations and assist in the implementation of a healthy relationship with alcohol. As education increases, I am hopeful that policy implementations will follow to encourage the public to stay within the low risk drinking guidelines. Education is the first stepping stone in improving health outcomes, and the new low risk drinking guidelines have done just that.
As mentioned before, the University experience creates an environment that encourages alcohol drinking. Students have more autonomy, greater influence of peers, increasing availability of alcohol and are exposed to social interactions that revolve around drinking alcohol. This creates the perfect storm for binge drinking. However, I believe that university students can be encouraged to meet the low risk drinking guidelines despite such culture. An important factor is creating spaces in which university students can socialize, without feeling pressure of drinking alcohol. An example of this can be seen at StFX, with the Flourish at X HUB. The university has created a space in a campus building with a number of activities for students to participate in. Activities such as vision board making, plant potting night, and therapy dog sessions are free for all students, take place in the evening after classes are over, and provide snacks and hot chocolate. The inclusion of spaces where students can freely socialize without drinking alcohol can promote wellbeing and a sense of belonging among students, in addition to reducing drinking.
The new guidelines from Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health: Final Report came as quite a shock to me, as in the university student culture, there is a great amount of exposure, societal acceptance, and even encouragement of alcohol use. This culture of encouraging drinking is especially true for binge drinking on weekends. Yet, the dangers, increased risks, and long-term effects of alcohol use are rarely discussed or promoted on campus. Specifically, the report findings that having more than two drinks per week increases your chances of developing different types of cancer, as well as that having more than two drinks on one occasion is associated with a significant increase in the risk of harm to self and others, makes me wonder how my previous patterns of alcohol use on weekends has impacted my health. Additionally, it makes me question if my peers at university are aware of these increased risks, as many tend to drink in amounts substantially above the recommended guidelines. I believe that to better campus support for students in creating healthier drinking habits would first be to promote these new guidelines across campus through posters, infographics, and interactive barcodes. Second, I believe that it would be crucial to limit university-endorsed events whose main aim is to gain profit off of alcohol purchasing and instead promote events that do not include the sale of alcohol and a party atmosphere. Third and finally, I believe there needs to be better promotion of healthy drinking habits for first-year students, especially during frosh week, as from personal experience, the acceptance and encouragement of drinking all initiate from this introductory period on campus.
Canada’s new guidelines on alcohol and health states that the risk for poor health outcomes as a result of alcohol consumption is low for individuals who consume two standard drinks a week, moderate for individuals who consume between 3 and 6 drinks, and high for individuals who consume seven or more drinks per week. These guidelines also state that females are at an increased risk for poor health outcomes as a result of alcohol consumption. Furthermore, I find the new guidelines extremely important for individuals just like myself. As a young adult female in university, consuming high amounts of alcohol within a week is not a foreign concept, and is often expected of us. Drinking has become an over-normalized concept, if you don’t engage in drinking at a social gathering you are seen as an outcast in a sense. Thus, the drinking guidelines serve as an effective way to inform the public on the health risks associated with alcohol consumption. I think it is a topic that deserves a larger platform, and a conversation that needs to be started
I think that campuses can help support students in creating healthier drinking habits by better informing students on the health risks associated with alcohol consumption. If students were better educated on the effects alcohol consumption has on their body, they will be more inclined to take their health into consideration when engaging in drinking. In saying this, I also believe that the culture around socially drinking needs to be reworked. Why do we feel the pressure to drink just because others are, and why do we feel it is crucial to having a good time? All in all, I think that further educating individuals on the health risks of alcohol consumption may be the first step in shaping the future of healthy alcohol use.
What was/is your reaction to Canada's new guidelines on alcohol and health?
Reading Canada’s new guidelines on alcohol and health was a big wake-up call. I knew, of course, that alcohol has associated risks and I have learned about the low-risk drinking guidelines many times in my health degree. That said, I don’t think I fully understood the severity or seriousness of the effects of alcohol. To think this drug has become so normalized in society is a little frightening. My friends and I talk often about how alcohol is integrated into seemingly everything and is so normalized, especially as young adults. Going out two or three times a week is “just what you do”. It feels senseless to think about making friends or being social without drinking. Even plans that don’t involve going to the pub or a brewery, like a board game night, there is always someone who shows up saying “I brought wine”. It has become a way to treat ourselves, relax, and let loose but, we are only putting ourselves at risk. On a different note, I was very surprised to know that women are at greater risk than men once they consume more than the upper limit of the moderate risk zone. I had no idea women had an increased risk of long-term harm and diseases like breast cancer, liver damage, and injury.
With these new guidelines in mind, how can campuses support students in creating healthier drinking habits?
Funny enough, I work as a bartender and server at the student bar and reading these guidelines has made me consider how we can do better for students on campus. It’s so hard and frankly, I don’t even know where to begin. This is so much bigger than a simple change of policy on campus. We need a cultural shift. Young adults are nothing if not clever and so banning alcohol on campuses or putting a two-drink cap at university bars isn’t a lasting or realistic solution. Students will find ways to drink regardless. I think the most important part is getting this information out there. Making it accessible for students to read the guidelines and understand the lasting impacts of the decision they make as young adults. Similar to smoking packages, we could add warning signs around campus bars and breweries. This would ensure everyone is aware of the risks prior to consumption. Moreover, there need to be programs in place to support those who choose to follow the guidelines. The reality is, drinking as often or as much as students do in university can easily be blamed on their age and disposition to make the most out of their university experience. That said, it doesn’t take much for this to become a lifestyle and I think a lot of students are in deeper than they think. Students will need guidance to adhere. Creating accessible programs for those who need help moderating their drinking and lowering their consumption is a key next step. We cannot ask for change without offering support as well. The final recommendation I would make is to welcome more non-alcohol-related activities. Truthfully, I don’t know if students would attend these events right away but, having the option to partake in activities that don’t include alcohol might make healthier drinking habits more appealing. This is a way for students to keep busy instead of feeling left out and it shows students that there are still ways to have fun and be social without drinking. I also don’t believe it needs to be advertised in a way that screams “ALCOHOL-FREE ACTIVITIES”. Just regular activities scheduled on common drinking nights such as Fridays and Saturdays. I would love to see more use of recreation spaces for various societies or intramural sports teams (volleyball, basketball, dodgeball, etc.). Live music in non-alcohol-related settings (i.e., outside of the student bars and breweries) such as campus buildings and coffee shops. I know it will take much more than these recommendations to support students in creating healthier drinking habits but, it may be a place to start.