The number of people who died due to alcohol increased to "new highs" during the COVID-19 pandemic, Statistics Canada says in data published today.
The federal agency's preliminary data shows that in 2019, before the pandemic, 3,200 deaths related to alcohol were recorded. A year later, the number of deaths increased to 3,790, and increased again in 2021 when there were 3,875 alcohol-induced deaths.
The 18 per cent increase from 2019 to 2020 was the largest year-over-year change seen in the last 20 years, Statistics Canada noted. Alcohol-induced deaths are those attributed to one of the causes of death listed in the report, which include alcoholic liver disease, accidental poisoning by and exposure to alcohol, and finding of alcohol in blood.
"These are large increases, particularly [because] these numbers tend to be relatively static," said Dr. Timothy Naimi, director of the University of Victoria's Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and professor at the university's School of Public Health and Social Policy.
"Having said that, it's not surprising. We know that alcohol consumption has gone up, although not by the degree with how deaths have."
Kara Thompson, an associate professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., says the number of deaths in Canada is concerning.
"They speak to the culture that we've created where it's acceptable to drink to cope with stress," she said.
"I also think it speaks to the fact that people are unaware of the significant harms that can result from their alcohol use."
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Younger populations affected
Younger generations made up the largest proportion of the deaths related to alcohol recorded during the first two years of the pandemic.
The federal agency's data shows alcohol-related deaths increased in the under-65 age group from 2019 to 2020 by 27 per cent, with 2,490 alcohol-related deaths recorded in 2020.
That's significantly higher than the four per cent increase in alcohol-related deaths among those 65 and older during the same time period.
The pandemic also saw an increase in deaths attributed to unintentional poisonings and exposure to noxious substances, especially among people under age 45.
Accidental poisoning includes from various illegal drugs, prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as solvents and pesticides.
In 2020, 4,605 people died from accidental poisonings or noxious substance exposure, with roughly 57 per cent of those who died under the age of 45, Statistics Canada reported. A year later, the number of accidental poisoning deaths grew to 6,310, with 3,600 of those people under 45.
In comparison, Statistics Canada said at the previous height of the overdose crisis in 2017, there were 4,830 deaths attributed to unintentional poisonings.
"I think what we're seeing here is in line with what provincial level data has been telling us," added Naimi.
The data released Thursday is provisional, Statistics Canada said, as it doesn't include all of the deaths during that time and does not include information on deaths in Yukon. The agency said it collected its data from medical certificates completed by a medical professional, medical examiner or coroner.
Health effects of alcohol not understood
Thompson adds that we need to be more cognizant as a society on the harms of alcohol on our individual health.
Erin Hobin, a senior scientist at Ontario Public Health, echoed the sentiment and told The Canadian Press there is relatively low public awareness about the health impacts of alcohol other than increased risk of birth defects for those who drink during pregnancy.
The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction's low-risk drinking guidelines, which correlate health risks to the number of drinks per week, are set to be made official next week.
The proposed guidelines released last summer are significantly lower than the previous suggestions of no more than 10 standard drinks a week for women and 15 standard drinks a week for men. Overall, it now recommends no more than two drinks a week.
In drafting its guideline, the centre said research suggests health-related risk from alcohol is negligible when consuming two drinks per week, moderate for three-to-six drinks per week, and increasingly high beyond that.