New alcohol guidelines recommending that Canadians limit themselves to just two drinks a week – and ideally cut out alcohol altogether – have sparked an intense debate about risk versus pleasure in a country where the vast majority of adults regularly consume alcohol.
The Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) this week called for a substantial reduction in consumption, warning that seemingly moderate consumption poses a number of serious health risks, including cancer, heart disease and strokes.
The new guidelines, funded by Health Canadarepresent a step change from previous recommendations issued in 2011, when Canadians were told that low-risk drinking meant no more than 10 drinks per week for women and 15 drinks per week for men.
“We just wanted to present the evidence to the Canadian public, so they can reflect on their drinking and make informed decisions,” said Peter Butt, professor of family medicine at the University of Saskatchewan and member of the committee. who wrote the report. guidelines. “It’s fundamentally based on the right to know.”
In its measurements, the CCSA considers a standard drink to be a 12 oz (355 ml) serving of 5% alcohol beer, a 5 oz (148 ml) glass of 12% alcohol wine, or a shot glass of 40% spirits.
In the UK, the The NHS recommends no more than six 6oz glasses of wine or six pints of 4% beer per week – ideally spread over three or more days. US health officials recommend no more than two glasses a day for men and only one for women.
But Canadian experts say new research suggests that three to six drinks a week should be considered a moderate risk for both men and women, and that seven or more drinks a week is a high risk. In addition to the elevated risk of colon and breast cancer, as well as heart disease and stroke, CCSA has also identified injury and violence as negative consequences of alcohol consumption.
“It’s not a ban. It’s just about reducing the amount of drink,” Butt said.
The guidelines also warn that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy or trying to get pregnant. Although abstinence while breastfeeding is the safest option, sometimes a standard drink does not significantly increase the risk.
The new guidelines have been met with skepticism by some health experts.
“This type of research often marginalizes other alcohol-related health and wellness considerations,” said Dan Malleck, professor of health sciences at Brock University.
“With their work as the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse, there’s no room in there to consider there might be benefits. Their job is to find the bad.
Malleck described the guidelines as “irresponsible” and said they risked creating “anxiety and stress” among Canadians who once considered themselves moderate drinkers but now fall into a “high-risk” category.
“The research they use also ignores the enjoyment, pleasure, stress relief and collegiality associated with alcohol. None of those things are part of the calculation,” he said. “We are not just machines with inputs and outputs of chemicals or nutrition. We actually exist in a social space. And this has a significant impact on our health.
Others, however, see the guidelines as an attempt to help Canadians better understand the realities of alcohol consumption.
“Alcohol is a psychoactive drug. Occasional use won’t have really significant effects. Even if you occasionally use something like heroin, you probably won’t see significant effects on your life. is the problem: people don’t drink alcohol occasionally — they drink it every day,” said Taryn Grieder, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
“The hope is that people will moderate their drinking and not drink every day, because we’ve seen research that has shown alcohol to be carcinogenic.”
Grieder says there are components in alcohol that can be beneficial, but are usually only found in certain beverages.
“A glass of red wine a day can have certain benefits. But no beer, not a glass of hard liquor. I think people took this idea that alcohol could have health benefits and really ran with it.”
The CCSA has also suggested there could be benefits to mandatory labeling of alcoholic beverages – warning of possible health risks and including guidance on drinking standards.
“It could help change people’s perception, with labels showing cirrhosis of the liver and the possible long-term effects that drinking alcohol can have,” Grieder said. “Everyone is different and some people metabolize alcohol differently.
“But these guidelines are aimed at the average person, and the hope is that people will recognize the risks associated with use – and especially with long-term use.”