Imagine you are at the pub with your friends and hear, “I have had [X number] drinks in an hour, and I am barely even tipsy.” Hearing this kind of statement is a common occurrence while at university, especially when it comes to the weekend. This seemingly normal statement is often met with responses of encouragement from peers such as “You need to drink more; that’s nothing” or “Go get another.” For many, this will seem normal, possibly relatable, and often might even be looked back upon as memories of the good old days. It is undeniable that the acceptance and encouragement of drinking alcohol, whether for professional, social, family, or work events, is an established norm for the Western world and specifically Canada.
Yet, society's perspective is vastly different if we think of the use of any other drug, except caffeine and nicotine, where reactions are often primarily focused on the health dangers of drug use, addiction, and accessibility. For example, let's change the statement by just a few words and imagine you hear this while hanging out with friends at a social event, “I just popped [X number] fentanyl, and I am still not feeling it. I need another.” Now be honest with yourself, would you or anyone you know react with encouragement or acceptance as everyone does with alcohol? In my mind, it would elicit a reaction exactly the opposite, that is, one of concern and disagreement. I would say the same if that statement were about cocaine, heroin, LSD, mushrooms, etc. Yet, for some reason, when it's alcohol, it is all different.
So here is the big question: why is alcohol viewed in an entirely different light than most of the other drugs?
Some may say this societal perspective of acceptance and encouragement regarding alcohol use is due to the different health risks associated with alcohol. Others may argue that the media and government have placed so much more emphasis on the opioid crisis and the associated negative health effects rather than on alcohol and its negative effects. But are the health risks that much less? In 2017, opioid-related deaths in Canada numbered approximately 13,000, whereas alcohol-related deaths in the same year numbered approximately 17,000 (Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health: Final Report [CGAH-FR], 2023). On its face, it is clear which substance generally carries more risk for Canadians. Additionally, new findings suggest that 2 standard drinks a week are considered low-risk, 3-6 standard drinks a week are considered moderate risk and 7 drinks or more are considered high-risk (CGAH-FR, 2023). This means that as alcohol consumption increases, the risk of colon and breast cancer, as well as the risk of heart disease and stroke, increases (CGAH-FR, 2023).
Our healthcare systems feel these impacts, with over $5 billion (out of the $16 billion associated with alcohol) being spent on healthcare (CGAH-FR, 2023). If we compare this again to opioids, The Canadian Substance Use Cost and Harms Report of 2017 showed that opioids only spent $439 million on health care out of the total $6 billion in associated costs (Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms, 2020).
So, if alcohol has been proven to be associated with such risks, why haven’t I heard about these dangers? In fact, why is it often the opposite? How come all I hear about is acceptance, encouragement, and competition to drink alcohol in concerning amounts as if it wasn’t a harmful substance? And why is it that there is a declared opioid crisis in Canada, yet alcohol is continuously supplied and promoted without mention of the reality?
Maybe, just maybe, this vast oversight of a concerning health issue for Canadians is more stemming from the fact that society, governments, and industries are avoiding the tough discussion about what alcohol is, a drug with negative consequences.
This is not to say that alcohol should be banned or that I am taking some moral high ground. I do have an occasional drink that I enjoy. But isn’t it time we start thinking about alcohol as a drug with negative effects rather than just something you drink to have fun, get relief, and become intoxicated without any repercussions? This means consciously thinking about the dangers of improper use when drinking. This can be going to a social event and limiting yourself to one or two drinks or replacing that nightly ice-cold beer with a near beer or an ice-cold soda water. Is it not time that we start to question the overwhelming acceptance of alcohol use and begin to think critically when it comes to our drinking habits, as well as the societal view of drinking in general? Hopefully, the eventual result will lead to much-needed education on the negative effects of alcohol.
Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health: Final Report. (2023). Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.
Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms: 2015-2017. (2020). Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.