The Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction’s recommendations were met with great skepticism by many Quebecers. After all, we are living longer and many seniors are drinking regularly and responsibly without developing health problems. The report itself has significant flaws, but when you examine the scientific literature and the links between alcohol use and cancer, the results over the last few years are stunning.
Posted at 8:30am
The Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) is a national non-governmental organization that provides information and advice on substance use and solutions to cope with addiction. Last fall, this organization issued recommendations that no one should drink more than a glass or two of alcohol a week. We learned last week that these are now the official guidelines that Canada is adopting.
Since 2011, moderate alcohol consumption in Canada has been defined as having no more than two standard drinks per day for women and up to three standard drinks per day for men, but not exceeding 10 standard drinks per week for women and 15 standard drinks per week for men. The new guidelines, which suggest a limit of one or two drinks per week, represent a complete departure from the public recommendations that previously guided us. In addition, the CCSA recommends placing warning labels on bottles advising that alcohol, like cigarettes, can cause cancer.
I’m not sure Canadians would like to see such labels! However, when one looks at the scientific literature and the links between alcohol consumption and cancer, the results of the last few years are overwhelming. The evidence that alcohol causes seven types of cancer is irrefutable.
Many studies around the world are readily available and many of them are not even cited by CCSA. Some articles claim that current estimates suggest that alcohol-related cancer accounts for 5.8% of all cancer deaths worldwide.
These studies, coupled with the CCSA’s recommendations, are likely to be met with considerable skepticism by many Canadians. After all, alcohol has been around for a very long time, and historians claim that fermented beverages existed at the dawn of Egyptian civilization. Some records also suggest that the Chinese were drinking alcohol over 9,000 years ago. Intuitively, it remains difficult to understand why anyone puts alcohol in the dock as we have done with cigarettes or other harmful products in our lives. Substances and factors other than alcohol can also cause cancer, as many studies have shown, but the risks are now scientifically proven.
Science is not an absolute. Still, research over the years has resulted in more compelling and undeniable support for smarter alcohol policies.
The CCSA’s scientific assessment is also flawed. For one thing, a number of studies still show the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption when all causes of death are considered when determining health risks. In other words, alcohol use may not be the leading cause of death, even among heavy drinkers. These studies are hardly mentioned in the report.
Another important CCSA omission is its assessment of the social and cultural aspects of alcohol consumption. Alcohol is an integral part of many celebrations, recreational events, vacations, after-work routines, etc. The CCSA opposed all research into the social value of alcohol, believing that none of it required scientific scrutiny. Perhaps neglecting such an important part of behavioral science will only make more Canadians skeptical. This is an area of research that needs more attention, and many Canadians would probably agree.
The socialization of alcohol does not only have its good sides. Unwanted social issues are also evident: mental health issues, abuse, sexual and domestic violence, harassment, etc. Alcohol is often part of the dark side of society.
The Canadian Center on Substance Abuse (CCSA) recommendations represent an opportunity for Canadians to better and more deeply understand their relationship with alcohol.
We must be open and honest with ourselves while accepting that responsible consumption of our favorite alcohol beverage in moderation remains the most balanced policy.
But there is hope. If we can make chicken meat in the lab, we certainly can’t make carcinogenic synthetic alcohol. In fact, UK-based GABA Labs has already released a product called Sentia that mimics the effects of alcohol but doesn’t cause hangovers or long-term health consequences. Many expect science to perfect various products and make them available in many outlets within five years. Pretty promising.
Still, our beverage industry has worked wonders for Canadians and will no doubt continue to innovate and provide great products for all to enjoy.
Food science can come to the rescue and help many Canadians live better, healthier lives. But until then, the CCSA report is likely to be a difficult message to swallow.