Friday, May 15, 2009
Our favourite drug causes major problems
Broken windows. Broken bones. Bar fights that spill out onto the street. The news of drunk young men and the latest harm they’ve caused in the downtown just keeps on coming.
The most recent news is of a Victoria police officer getting his leg broken after drunken young scrappers accidentally toppled him during a brawl outside the Pita Pit takeout restaurant. No doubt we’ll soon be talking again about early closure of the Pita Pit as a “solution,” as if the problem is in the gathering and not the fact that young men are drinking themselves into belligerent oblivion every weekend.
Not every young man is out there getting himself slam-faced drunk in the downtown, of course. Most aren’t. But a significant number are routinely drinking at harmful levels, posing a danger to themselves and anyone who crosses their path. That’s the problem we ought to be trying to fix.
I understand the appeal of alcohol, being a social drinker with a clear memory of how hard I drank myself for a couple of years when I was 14 or so. But that’s not to say I’m blind to alcohol’s many harms.
Even social drinkers risk long-term health problems from a lifetime of steady drinking. I co-wrote a book on addiction for ASPECT B.C. last year, and what lingered for me most from the research into the many drugs we take were alcohol’s powerful, lasting effects on every system of the body and mind.
And that’s just for starters. The one-off harms caused by a single night of drunkenness are legion. Car accidents, beatings, killings, robbery, domestic assault, sexual abuse, infidelity, on and on. We’re capable of immensely stupid and tragic acts when we drink too much.
For pregnant women, alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs a woman can take in terms of the potential lifelong damage to the baby. It’s a “teratogenic” - a substance capable of crossing the placental wall and wreaking havoc on a developing fetus at the cellular level.
Yet our resistance in Canada even to label alcohol bottles with a warning about that says it all when it comes to the sacred-cow status alcohol enjoys in our society. Case in point: the FASD Community Circle asked the region’s mayors a couple years ago to abstain from alcohol for nine months as a gesture of support for non-drinking pregnant moms, and none of them would do it. (Good on Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe and her husband for jumping in.)
Then again, how many of us would agree to nine months booze-free? The average British Columbian over the age of 15 now consumes more than 500 alcoholic drinks annually. Among college and university students, one in eight binge-drink every weekend. Each year’s alcohol-sales stats show us drinking a little more than the year before, helped along by the 9,000 liquor stores and drinking establishments that now operate in B.C.
OK, so we love the stuff. But we’re going to have to get past that if we want to deal with the larger problems of harmful alcohol use.
UVic’s Centre for Addiction Research (CARBC) and the provincial medical health officer have done excellent work on this topic. They note that by 2002, the costs of alcohol-related problems in B.C. were already exceeding tax revenues from alcohol sales by $61 million a year. We’ve pushed those revenues up a little further every year since then by drinking more, but the alcohol-related harms always seem to increase faster.
CARBC advocates a variable liquor tax tied to the amount of pure alcohol in a particular product. In countries that have tried such taxing strategies, a beer with less alcohol sells for less than one with a higher level, which encourages consumers to buy lower-alcohol brands. The reverse is true right now for some alcoholic beverages in B.C.; coolers, for instance, actually get cheaper as alcohol content increases.
B.C. medical health officer Dr. Perry Kendall has urged the B.C. government to consider the impact of allowing 500 more liquor stores to open in the province in the past seven years, an increase of almost 40 per cent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that consumption has gone up eight per cent in the same period of time.
We need a campaign - one that motivates through education, price point and prosecution, with particular relevance to the age group causing the bulk of the trouble downtown. We’ve danced around the edges long enough with our debates around pop-up urinals, staggered bar closings, and forced closure of takeout joints for the sin of selling food late at night.
The problem is drunkenness. The solution is less of it.