Exploring the differences between Canada’s old and new alcohol guidelines and what students think about them
In July 2020, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction began the process of updating Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines, which was issued in 2011. Critical changes were made, and it was replaced with Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health earlier this year.
Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines suggested no more than 10 drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men in order to reduce long-term health risks. It was also recommended that women consume no more than three drinks per occasion and men no more than four in order to “reduce your risk of injury and harm.” The government has recently reduced these numbers to only two standard drinks a week for everyone, regardless of gender, due to studies that have linked alcohol with cancer and other negative health effects.
Based on the new guidelines, those who drink three to six standard drinks per week have an increased risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast and colon cancer, and those who drink seven or more standard drinks per week have a significantly increased risk of developing heart disease or experiencing a stroke. Each additional standard drink after this “radically increases the risk of alcohol-related consequences,” according to Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health. In this context, a standard drink means 341 ml (12oz) of beer, coolers, or ciders that have a 5% alcohol content, 142 ml (5oz) of wine that has a 12% alcohol content, and 43 ml (1.5oz) of spirits, like whisky, vodka, or gin, that have a 40% alcohol content. The new guidelines also emphasize reducing the risk of harm to yourself and others by consuming no more than two drinks per occasion. Although these guidelines are intended to support people in making informed decisions when they consume alcohol, the “none is better” mindset is stressed. Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health states that “research shows that no amount or kind of alcohol is good for your health.”
“This reminds me of the ongoing issue of mixing politics with [very specific personal affairs,]” comments one student who wishes to remain anonymous. “I just don’t think the government needs to be in people’s business like that,” they said. “People aren’t going to care and [the new guidelines] aren’t going to change much. There are bigger fish to fry.”
Angus Hussey-Taillon, a second-year English major, had a similar opinion about Canada’s updated alcohol guidelines. “I feel like they make sense but they’re also not attainable,” he said. “I do appreciate the idea they’re going for but I don’t think it’s reasonable. If you’re already drinking more [than the guideline suggests], then you’re going to keep doing it and you’re not going to care that the government told you to stop,” he explained. “[I think it’s aimed at] more consistent drinkers rather than people who want to have a few drinks on a Friday night. […] [The new guidelines] might act as a wakeup call [for people who are normalized with drinking,]” Hussey-Taillon commented.
An anonymous second-year Arts student, who will be referred to as Brandy for sake of clarity, said that she wouldn’t have even known about the new guidelines had she not been interviewed. Like the previous students, she claimed that the new guidelines would not affect her drinking habits.
One of the key differences between the 2011 alcohol guidelines and the updated guidelines is that the variety of ways alcohol can affect your health, including increasing the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and strokes, are on clear display. Interestingly, alcoholic beverages have been classified as Group 1 carcinogens since 1988 by the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
“I think this is the same situation [as] when cigarettes were popular,” Brandy said. “We’re always going to have people who smoke and we’re always going to have people who drink even though it’s a common, known fact that both are really bad for you and cause cancer,” Brandy explained. Hussey-Taillon also commented on this. “I feel like [that] specific [information is] concerning, but I don’t think [it’s] shocking [or] surprising,” he remarked. “But also, everyone knows alcohol isn’t apple juice – you shouldn’t be downing a couple [of] beer every day with your breakfast,” he said. The anonymous student was more carefree about this news: “Anything’s risky at this point; people tell you staring at the microwave is going to give you cancer!”
The general opinion here seems to be that the new alcohol guidelines won’t affect student life that much, but could it affect the bar scene?
“In theory, yes; in practice, absolutely not,” said a bartender from Mt. A.’s campus bar, The Pond. “It’s good that it’s out there, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t think anybody’s going to follow it,” they stated. “I feel like we already know that alcohol is bad for you. No one really takes [the warnings] seriously,” they commented.
On another note, could the new guidelines affect how much alcohol can be served to students at the bar? The bartender mentioned that customer safety is the number one priority.
“You’re supposed to be responsible for not only making sure that they don’t get drunk at the bar that you’re working at, but also trying to make sure that they don’t get drunk elsewhere,” they stated. “Generally speaking, the rule of thumb is four to five [drinks per person.] If the guidelines are lower, maybe [we would serve less than that;] like two or three [drinks per person,]” the bartender explained.
The student who wishes to remain anonymous brought up a nice concluding point. “[People] will think it’s fine until [alcohol makes them sick.] Right now, they don’t care because it’s not applicable to them in the moment. They’re not going to care unless they’ve seen someone go through it, then they’ll care because they care on a more personal level,” they noted.
If you are struggling with substance abuse or addiction, you are not alone. Wellness Together Canada provides immediate, free, and confidential mental health and substance use help. You can call them at 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 741741.
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