This is a monthly discussion of "issues to watch" in the field of alcohol policy.
New Report Confirms Alcohol Kills More Than AIDS
Alcohol is the third leading risk factor for disability and disease and is responsible for 4% — 2.5 million — deaths worldwide annually. It contributes to a wide array of injuries including traffic collisions, poisoning, and drowning, along with diseases such as cirrhosis and various cancers. In contrast, AIDS kills 2.1 million worldwide annually.
The World Health Organization in the Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health argue that too few countries use effective policy options to prevent death, disease, and injury from alcohol use. Many countries have weak alcohol policies and prevention programs.
In February 2011, Dr. Ala Alwan of the World Health Organization said: “Many countries recognize the serious public health problems caused by the harmful use of alcohol and have taken steps to prevent the health and social burdens and treat those in need of care. But clearly much more needs to be done to reduce the loss of life and suffering associated with harmful alcohol use.”
Recognizing the prevalent harms associated with alcohol use and misuse, there are a number of evidence-based interventions and policies that we know can reduce this harm. Giesbrecht and Canadian colleagues (2011) suggest that these policies “should be based on the evidence for their effectiveness and take into account sustainability, feasibility, and scope of impact.”
These same authors recommend a two-tiered response to alcohol-related harms, with the first tier aiming to reduce population-level damage from alcohol and the second tier more specific to certain situations or populations. These include:
- Effective Alcohol Pricing
- Controlling Physical Availability
- Curtailing Alcohol Marketing
- Maintaining Alcohol Control Systems
- Drinking and Driving Legislation
- Changing the Context of Drinking
- Education and Persuasion Strategies
- Increased Access to Brief Interventions
The authors also warn that “without effective action on the first tier, attempts to control the damage and costs from alcohol through second-tier interventions will, at best, be modestly effective.”
These recommended policies — which would be effective in the Canadian landscape — are congruent with the leading publication on alcohol policy: The 2010 published book Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity, 2nd edition.
The evident need for strengthened alcohol policy in Canada is a public health concern. Decades of research have pointed to this. Evidence-based strategies have been devised and discussed. As Giesbrecht and colleagues outline, governments, public health agencies and the medical community are now “urged to be proactive on this issue and encourage comprehensive approaches and community support for effective action.” This will then contribute to a reduction in high-risk drinking and damage from alcohol decreasing the health and safety burden in Canadian communities.
BC’s Improved Impaired Driving Rates
In September 2010, BC introduced tough new impaired driving sanctions. When it introduced the new impaired driving law — the toughest in Canada — the BC government was taking a stand against the persistent and devastating problem of impaired driving. Despite early technical difficulties with roadside breathalyzer devices, recent reports suggest these new sanctions have produced positive statistics and the BC Association of Police Chiefs are advocating the sanctions remain in place based on their immediate effectiveness.
Drivers now caught with BACs of 0.05% or higher will lose their licence for at least three days, explained MADD Canada in a media release. Get caught a second time in five years, the suspension extends to seven days. A third infraction within five years carries a 30-day suspension. Repeat infractions can also result in escalating fines, mandatory education programs, mandatory alcohol ignition interlocks, and vehicle impoundments.
“Strong administrative programs and sanctions beginning at 0.05% [Blood Alcohol Concentration] reduce impaired driving, resulting in fewer alcohol-related crashes, fatalities and injuries on our roads,” said Andrew Murie, Chief Executive Officer of MADD Canada when the sanctions were announced in September 2010. “British Columbia’s new sanctions provide an increased level of deterrence for impaired drivers … We commend the Government of British Columbia for these important changes. This province now has the strongest administrative sanctions for impaired driving in the country,” Murie concluded.
From October 2010 to January 2011, there was a 40% drop in provincial drunk driving deaths compared to the previous four months, resulting in a lower-than-usual 20 drunk-driving deaths in BC. In Nanaimo, there were no impaired driving deaths over the holiday season, a time local RCMP officials say usually accounts for several serious crashes. Impaired driving deaths are also down 23% from the same time last year.
“Though it’s too early to tell if these figures are a random statistical dip or evidence of a genuine change in public behaviour, police are confident that the new legislation has saved lives and reduced the number of impaired drivers on the province’s roads” reported the Times Colonist in March 2011. “Let’s not forget the reasons these laws were put in place. In BC, impaired drivers kill more than 100 people and injure more than 3,000 each year. Every one of these tragedies is entirely preventable.”