Canada’s new alcohol guidelines in sync with changing culture for some Islanders
Matthew Cameron, a 33-year-old engineer from Kensington, PEI, started his second dry January this month.
Its last dry January lasted well into the summer.
“I realized that I value mornings, especially on weekends,” Cameron said.
“Saturday mornings you can get up at 7, 8, just drink that coffee and enjoy a clear head. It’s higher on the list of values than those 2 a.m. nights.”
With more people talking about Dry January and the growing availability of soft drinks — both in stores and on bar menus — Cameron finds it easier this time to simply say, I’m not drinking tonight.
“It’s almost more socially acceptable not to drink lately, which is fascinating,” he said.
“There’s still social pressure, but it’s getting less and less.”
Small but noticeable drop when drinking
Canada’s new alcohol guidelines, which recommend drinking no more than two drinks a week, represent a dramatic shift from previous guidelines – but alcohol consumption on the island had already started to decline in recent years.
The drop isn’t huge — about half a drink per person per week — but it’s constant. After peaking at 8.5 liters of alcohol per year (which is the pure ethanol equivalent regardless of what beverage is consumed) in 2009/10, it has remained at 8.2 or below for the past decade.
That equates to just over nine drinks a week for every islander over the age of 15, which is still well above the new guidelines.
But it might be premature to hit the panic button about the discrepancy between the guidelines and what islanders are drinking, said Edward Slingerland, UBC philosophy professor and author of Drunka study of man’s relationship to alcohol throughout history and even prehistory.
“Part of the problem here is this view that alcohol is just a vice,” Slingerland said.
“That’s not the case. Alcohol is an important cultural technology that we have used to provide pleasure for tens of thousands of years. Alcohol consumption has hedonic value, 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’s only part of the problem Slingerland has with them. It’s a mistake, he said, to look at alcohol through medical glasses and ignore its benefits.
island morning7:36Cut down on the alcohol
For example, he said, alcohol in small doses can enhance individual creativity.
“It allows us to think more like a little kid,” he said. “Think creatively, think outside the box.”
In Drunk, Slingerland argues that alcohol was critical to the growth of civilization. Primates are wild tribes. Alcohol breaks down social inhibitions and, he writes, was key to enabling people to work together in larger groups.
“A Crutch for Social Anxiety”
That social function, Cameron said, is something he’s realized is central to his own relationship with alcohol.
“It was certainly a crutch for social anxiety and certainly just fuel for supposed better times,” he said.
Cameron began to question the need for alcohol to fuel these good times in 2020.
Pandemic lockdowns meant there were fewer social events, fewer opportunities to sugarcoat fear with alcohol. He attempted his first dry January of 2021 and it turned into an exploration of who he could be at a alcohol-free party.
“Every time you drink, I find you can get to a place with fewer inhibitions. And I always wonder, can I get there without alcohol?” he said.
“You can dance and be silly. It’s not necessarily the alcohol that’s dancing. You dance, you’re silly, so you can do it.”
It’s undeniable, Slingerland agrees, that excessive drinking poses a serious health risk.
Where to draw that line and how to weigh it against the benefits is more problematic.
Alcohol control has always been an issue for society, Slingerland said. It’s a problem, he said, that’s being complicated by some relatively recent — by historical standards — changes: the more widespread drinking of distilled spirits, rum and whiskey and the like in recent centuries, and the shift towards personal consumption of alcoholic beverages.
“We have all these techniques when we drink socially to help each other control our drinking,” he said.
“All of that falls out of the window when we can call the local liquor store from our private home or apartment and have them deliver a case of tequila.”
For most of human history, drinking alcohol has been ritualized and even considered sacred, Slingerland said. These rituals were designed to control consumption, he said, and many Canadians may have participated without thinking why.
“Even in very informal settings like the pub … you usually order in rounds and if you’re drinking your drink very quickly you have to wait for everyone to finish before ordering another round.”
None of these social conventions apply at home. Then there is the difference between distilled spirits and wine and beer.
“Distilled spirits are still just ethanol, but they really should be thought of as a different drug,” Slingerland said.
“They are so much stronger than beers and wines, especially historic beers and wines, and they quickly overwhelm our ability to process and remove the ethanol from 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 spirits.
Even before Health Canada’s guidelines were issued, PEI’s seasonal resident Jen Harding began to wonder if she was drinking too much and if it could be having long-term effects on her health.
People don’t tend to think of a glass or two of wine with dinner as a problem drinking, she said, but that’s what she says is showing new research on alcohol published years before the new guidelines were released.
“I was an occasional drinker, but someone who drank wine with most meals every night. There was usually a bottle of wine on the counter that I drank with friends or went out after work,” Harding said.
“I realized that I was drinking almost every day.”
She decided to stop drinking midweek.
I would leave a party at 2, 3 am dead sober… I felt like I got away with a bank robbery. It felt liberating.– Matthew Cameron
“I just felt better mentally 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 wonders if she made her decision too late. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall. Harding had the genetic tests done and they showed that she was not genetically predisposed to cancer.
“Under such circumstances, the question then remains: why?” She said.
There’s no way to find out if Harding’s cancer is related to her drinking. Figures from Health Canada show a 25 percent increase in breast cancer risk in women who consume 14 standard drinks per week.
If a woman who drinks that much gets breast cancer, there’s an 80 percent chance it’s not related to her drinking.
‘Can I get this value?’
With the announcement of the new guidelines, more islanders are likely to have considered how much they drink and why.
“Can I get the value of last night, I can do it as well, if you will, without the alcohol,” Cameron said.
“I left a party dead sober at 2.3am and drove home feeling like I got away with a bank robbery. It felt liberating. It felt free.”
Whether the decision is about moderation or abstinence, Slingerland said it should be about looking at the bigger picture of how alcohol fits into your life.
“By understanding the functions of alcohol, you’ll be better able to make intelligent decisions about how much and when to use it,” he said.