Canada's new alcohol guidelines in sync with changing culture for some Islanders

Alcohol has important social functions not taken into account by the new Health Canada guidelines, says philosophy Prof. Edward Slingerland. (Getty Images - image credit)
Alcohol has important social functions not taken into account by the new Health Canada guidelines, says philosophy Prof. Edward Slingerland. (Getty Images - image credit)

Matthew Cameron, a 33-year-old engineer from Kensington, P.E.I., embarked on his second Dry January this month.

His last Dry January lasted well into the summer.

"I started realizing I value mornings, especially on the weekends," said Cameron.

"Saturday mornings you can get up at 7, 8, just have that coffee and enjoy a clear head. That's higher up on the value list than those 2 a.m. kind of nights."

Matthew Cameron
Matthew Cameron

With more people talking about Dry January, and the increased availability of non-alcoholic beverages — both in stores and on bar menus — Cameron is finding it easier this time around to just say, I'm not drinking tonight.

"It's almost more socially acceptable to not drink lately, which is fascinating," he said.

"There's still a social pressure, but it's less and less."

Small but clear drop in drinking

Canada's new alcohol guidelines, which recommend consuming no more than two drinks per week, are a dramatic shift from previous guidance — but alcohol consumption on the Island had already begun to decline in recent years.

The drop isn't large — about a half a drink per person per week — but it is consistent. After hitting a peak of 8.5 litres of alcohol per year (that is the pure ethanol equivalent, regardless of what beverage is consumed) in 2009/10, it has remained at 8.2 or lower for the last decade.

That's the equivalent of just over nine drinks per week for every Islander over the age of 15, which is still well above the new guidelines.

Alcohol consumption

But it may be hasty to push the panic button over the discrepancy between the guidelines and what Islanders are drinking, said Edward Slingerland, a UBC philosophy professor and author of Drunk, a study of people's relationship with alcohol through history and even prehistory.

"Part of the problem here is this view of alcohol as just a vice," said Slingerland.

Submitted by Edward Slingerland
Submitted by Edward Slingerland

"That's not the case. Alcohol is an important cultural technology that we've been using for tens of thousands of years to, you know, give us pleasure. There's hedonic value to drinking alcohol, but it also has really important social functions."

The methodology and conclusions of the studies leading to the new  guidelines have been questioned, but that is only part of the issue Slingerland has with them. It's a mistake, he said, to consider alcohol through a purely medicalized lens, while ignoring its benefits.

For example, he said, alcohol in small doses can enhance individual creativity.

"Which allows us to think more like a little kid," he said. "Think creatively, think outside the box."

In Drunk, Slingerland argues alcohol was pivotal to the growth of civilization. Primates are fiercely tribal. Alcohol loosens social inhibitions and, he writes, was key to allowing humans to work together in larger groups.

'A crutch for social anxiety'

This social function, said Cameron, is something he has come to realize was central to his own relationship with alcohol.

"It was certainly a crutch for social anxiety and certainly just a fuel for perceived better times," he said.

Cameron began to question the need for alcohol to fuel those good times in 2020.

Pandemic lockdowns meant there were fewer social events, fewer occasions to gloss over anxiety by drinking. He tried his first dry January in 2021, and it became an exploration of who he could be at a party without alcohol.

"Every time you drink, I find, you can get to a place, you know, with less inhibition. And I'm always asking myself, can I get there without the alcohol?" he said.

"You can dance and be silly. It's not necessarily the alcohol that's dancing. It's you dancing, it's you being silly, so you can do it."

Finding the limits

It is indisputable, Slingerland agrees, that overconsumption of alcohol is a serious health risk.

Where that line is to be drawn, and how to balance it against the benefits, is more problematic.

Controlling alcohol consumption has always been an issue for societies, said Slingerland. It is a problem, he said, made more difficult by some relatively new — on a historical scale — changes: the more widespread drinking in the last few centuries of distilled spirits, rum and whiskey and the like, and the move toward the private consumption of alcoholic beverages.

"We have all these techniques when we're drinking socially to help each other control our drinking," he said.

"All of that goes out the window when we can, from our private home or apartment, call up the local liquor store and have them deliver a case of tequila."

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Through most of human history drinking alcohol has been ritualized, even considered sacred, said Slingerland. These rituals were developed to control consumption, he said, and many Canadians may have participated in them without thinking about why.

"Even in very informal situations like the pub ... you typically order in rounds and if you drink your drink very quickly you have to wait until everyone's done before you order another round."

None of these social conventions apply at home. Then there's the difference between distilled liquors and wine and beer.

"Distilled liquors, they're still just ethanol but they really should be considered a different drug," said Slingerland.

"They're so much more powerful than beers and wines, particularly historical beers and wines, and they quickly overwhelm our ability to process the ethanol and get it out of our system. So you can get very dangerously drunk very quickly."

There are precedents for this. Several European countries have different legal drinking ages for beer and for spirits.

Growing concern

Even before the Health Canada guidelines were issued, P.E.I. seasonal resident Jen Harding began to wonder if she was drinking too much, and if it might have a long-term impact on her health.

People don't tend to think of a glass or two of wine with dinner as problem drinking, she said, but that's what she felt new research into alcohol, published years before the new guidelines came out, was pointing to.

Shutterstock/Africa Studio
Shutterstock/Africa Studio

"I was a casual drinker but somebody who would have wine with most meals each night. There was usually a bottle of wine on the counter that I would drink with friends, or I would go out after work," said Harding.

"I realized I was drinking every day, almost."

She decided to stop drinking during the week.

"I would leave a party at 2, 3 o'clock in the morning, dead sober ... I felt like I'd got away with robbing a bank. It felt liberating." — Matthew Cameron

"It made me feel just mentally better because I knew I was taking a step to do something that felt like the right thing for my health, even though there wasn't a dramatic benefit at the time," she said.

But now Harding finds herself wondering if she made her decision too late. In the fall she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Harding had the genetic tests done, and they showed she is not genetically predisposed to cancer.

"In those sorts of circumstances you're left then with the question of why?" she said.

There is no way to tease out if Harding's cancer is related to her drinking. Health Canada figures list a 25 per cent increase in risk for breast cancer in women consuming 14 standard drinks per week.

Looking at that another way, if a woman drinking that much develops breast cancer, there is an 80 per cent chance it was not related to her drinking.

'Can I get that value?'

With the announcement of the new guidelines, more Islanders have likely been thinking about how much they are drinking and why.

"Can I get that value of the last night, can I make it as good, if you will, without the alcohol," said Cameron.

"I would leave a party at 2, 3 o'clock in the morning, dead sober, drive home and I felt like I'd got away with robbing a bank. It felt liberating. It felt free."

Whether the decision is about moderation or abstinence, Slingerland said it should be about looking at the larger picture of how alcohol fits into your life.

"If you understand what the functions of alcohol are, you're in a better position to make intelligent decisions about how much and when to use it," he said.