Canada's got a drinking problem — and one senator says Ottawa needs to step up

Shelves filled with bottles on display at an LCBO outlet in Ottawa. Alcohol is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in Canada. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)
Shelves filled with bottles on display at an LCBO outlet in Ottawa. Alcohol is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in Canada. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)

The federal government pitched a sizeable increase to the alcohol excise tax earlier this year — only to walk back that commitment in response to backlash from some MPs, lobby groups and cost-conscious Canadian drinkers.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland's budget kept the annual tax increase much lower than inflation — it'll grow by just 2 per cent this year — after a well-organized letter-writing campaign convinced the government that the political repercussions of such a hike weren't worth the relatively modest revenue bump.

There was similar blowback when the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) recently issued new drinking guidelines that claimed no amount of alcohol is safe.

The recommendation prompted derision from some who said the health professionals behind the research are fun-averse teetotalers bent on needlessly worrying people about the risks of wine, beer and spirits. The government-funded data still hasn't been posted publicly by Health Canada.

These incidents reveal just how deeply entrenched alcohol is in Canadian life — and how reluctant the government is to crack down on drinking.

"You know, alcohol is the favourite substance of many policymakers and indeed for a lot of us. It has sort of an iconic cultural status. Politicians — they don't want to do much about it," said Dr. Tim Naimi, the director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria.

"It's the leading cause of preventable death in Canada. It's the government's job to protect Canadians from the tremendous harms caused by alcohol. For some reason, they feel threatened by the facts."

At least one politician wants to do something to curb consumption.

Quebec Sen. Patrick Brazeau is a recovering alcoholic. His struggles with addiction have been well-documented.

Sober for three years, Brazeau now wants other Canadians to avoid the potentially life-altering effects of alcohol abuse.

"If you had told me 10 years ago I'd be sober and introducing a bill to label alcohol products, I would've told you you're crazy," Brazeau told CBC News. "I was drinking way too much because I was hurting inside. I was trying to kill the pain."

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Brazeau said alcohol is the only known carcinogen that comes without warning labels.

He's introduced Bill S-254, which would mandate health labels on all alcohol bottles alerting consumers to the possibility of cancer.

Tobacco, vape and cannabis packages are already plastered with dire warnings, he said, and alcohol shouldn't get a pass.

"There's still a lot of taboo around alcohol — it's so widely accepted in our society," he said.

"But alcohol is not good for us and we have to stop pretending that it is. [It] doesn't seem there are too many people on Parliament Hill, elected officials, who are willing to take the bull by the horns and do something."

According to data collected by Naimi's institute, about 25 per cent of Canadian drinkers have no idea that alcohol can cause seven fatal cancers.

Other jurisdictions have tried to publicize these risks.

Dozens of countries around the world, including the U.S., already require health labels.

Olivier Hyland/CBC News
Olivier Hyland/CBC News

Researchers in Yukon placed warnings on liquor bottles in 2017.

The results were immediate — sales dropped by 6.6 per cent at a Whitehorse store as more consumers saw the prominently placed red labels. The project was scrapped amid pressure from some industry groups.

A spokesperson for Spirits Canada, a lobby group that represents the distilled spirits industry, did not respond to a request for comment on Brazeau's bill. Beer Canada has said the industry can regulate itself.

A cash cow for governments

Governments depend on liquor sales to generate billions of dollars in revenue to fund public programs.

The federal and provincial governments earned an eye-popping $13.6 billion from alcohol sales in 2021-22, according to Statistics Canada.

Drinkers — about 76 per cent of all Canadians consume alcohol in a given year — are understandably reluctant to pay more for a product that, statistics show, many regularly enjoy.

Some drinkers also bristle at the suggestion that moderate consumption is a problem, and defend alcohol as one of life's little pleasures.

While much attention has been paid to the ongoing opioid epidemic — a tragic health event that has claimed the lives of thousands of Canadian drug users — publicly available data reveals there's a parallel crisis underway.

Supplied by Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research
Supplied by Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research

"The opioid epidemic is a massive public health problem, but we have a very serious problem with alcohol, too," said Naimi.

"It's just that alcohol has been with us for a long time. We've essentially learned to live with a high rate of problems from many, many years."

Canada recorded 3,875 alcohol-induced deaths in 2021, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada — a 21 per cent increase over 2019 that likely was driven by a pandemic-related spike in consumption.

Other Canadian research suggests alcohol is even more deadly than those numbers suggest.

A peer-reviewed study published by the Public Health Agency of Canada suggests alcohol consumption in Canada is associated with approximately 15,000 preventable deaths (including 7,000 cancer deaths) and 90,000 preventable hospital admissions every year.

(Preventable deaths from alcohol are defined as alcohol-related cancers, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, unintentional injuries and violence.)

Those numbers closely track what's been reported in the U.S., a country with a population almost ten times that of Canada. The United States reports about 140,000 alcohol-related deaths each year.

While the government has rolled out a suite of policy measures to curb opioid-related deaths — there are more safe-consumption sites now and naloxone kits are ubiquitous — it's said comparatively little about what can be done to reduce alcohol-related death and disease.

Data shows that about 20 per cent of Canadians reported alcohol consumption that classified them as "heavy drinkers," according to Statistics Canada.

The numbers are higher in Newfoundland and Labrador (27.7 per cent) and Quebec (21.2 per cent) and lower in Manitoba (16 per cent) and Ontario (17.3 per cent).

Michael Mcarthur/CBC News
Michael Mcarthur/CBC News

Over the past decade, about 600,000 Canadians have become physically dependent on alcohol — a condition that can lead to injuries, violence, alcohol poisoning, risky sexual behaviour, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, cancer and mental health problems.

While alcohol is a cash cow for all levels of government, researchers say that profit is dwarfed by other costs.

The provincially owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), the world's largest alcohol importer, generated an annual dividend of roughly $2.4 billion in 2020-21.

I have 26 years left in the Senate so I'm in it for the long haul. - Sen. Patrick Brazeau

By comparison, the collective impact of alcohol use on health care, crime and lost productivity has been pegged at an estimated $22.4 billion a year — a figure higher than the costs of tobacco use and the costs of all other psychoactive substances combined, including opioids and cannabis — according to research by Naimi's institute in Victoria and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

"This is a big ticket item. Taxpayers are footing the bill for what amounts to ... a subsidy on alcohol and heavy drinking in particular," Naimi said.

A spokesperson for federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett said the government will "continue to monitor" Brazeau's bill as it makes its way through Parliament.

As for the charge that it hasn't done enough to curb problem drinking, the spokesperson said "alcohol use is a serious and complex public health and safety issue."

Government won't support bill, Brazeau says

The government is investing in programs to prevent alcohol use during pregnancy, funding substance use and addiction support programs, restricting alcohol content in some beverages and financing research, the spokesperson said.

Brazeau knows he's facing an uphill battle.

In a meeting with Bennett, the minister told Brazeau the government likely won't support his bill, he said.

Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press

He's also routinely approached by lobbyists who are intent on killing the legislation, he added.

Brazeau said he's getting some support from other senators to push the legislation to committee — but he's not naive about the challenges that lie ahead in taking on such a popular vice.

"I have 26 years left in the Senate so I'm in it for the long haul," he said.

Referring back to his now infamous boxing match with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Brazeau said, "I'm not afraid of getting in a fight or getting knocked around."