Alcohol-A drug hidden in plain sight
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol use has been on the rise, and with it, an increased number of people are being hospitalized for side effects of which they are unaware.
Alcohol is a drug, but a legal one. Light drinking of red wine is associated with reduced stress and a healthier heart, a cold beer is seen as a refreshing way to relax, and most government guidelines cite health benefits to drinking 1 to 2 units of alcohol a day. However, according to research done by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in a study spanning two decades from 1990 to 2016, "The safest level of drinking is none."
The IHME's research examined data from 694 studies to measure individual and population alcohol consumption and 592 studies covering 28 million people to assess health risks. According to their studies, alcohol use was the "leading risk factor globally in 2016" for people ages 15-49 years old, contributing to 3.8% of female deaths and 12.2% of male deaths.
In adults over 50, the effects of alcohol consumption were more pronounced, with cancer caused by alcohol consumption being responsible for "27.1% of total alcohol-attributable female deaths and 18.9% of male deaths."
Even low alcohol consumption, 1 to 2 units of alcohol a day, is associated with health issues such as a 15% increase in breast cancer in women and an increased risk of other forms of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Studies like these are contrary to the health recommendations of many countries, such as Canada and Britain. Health guidelines for both countries insinuate that you will be safe if you drink the recommended units of alcohol a week, with the Chief Medical Officers’ guideline in the UK stating, "You are safest not to drink regularly more than 14 units per week, to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level." And Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines suggest you can, "Reduce your long-term health risks by drinking no more than 10 drinks a week for women, with no more than 2 drinks a day most days." And, "15 drinks a week for men, with no more than 3 drinks a day most days."
Such guidelines are dangerous to the public, as they give the illusion of safety to people following the guidelines, not knowing the increased health risks of drinking even small quantities of alcohol a month.
Without knowledge of the side effects of alcohol, people are being admitted to hospitals at ever-increasing rates.
The COVID-19 pandemic in Canada has caused people to become more reliant on alcohol, and the lack of guidelines that inform people of the dangers and side effects of alcohol consumption has resulted in an influx of alcohol-related hospitalizations.
In the past, alcohol has accounted for about half of all hospitalizations in Canada. In Northern Canada, it is closer to 80 percent. But according to the gastroenterologist at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, Dr. Sam Elfassy, the pandemic has caused an uptick in people drinking at home, and those numbers are rising. "I'm very worried now with this new wave that we’re going to start seeing a further surge in the next couple of months," says Elfassy in his interview with the Toronto Star.
This trend has resulted in 4,300 more hospital stays for chronic medical conditions related to alcohol in the first 16 months of the pandemic compared to 2019.
However, there is a solution.
In 2017, the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria printed and applied 300,000 warning labels on alcohol bottles and beer cans in liquor stores in Whitehorse, Yukon. The warning labels explained the dangers of alcohol consumption and included Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines.
The study found about a 6.5% decrease in alcohol consumption in Whitehorse compared to the areas around it and the Northwest Territories.
Warning labels are an effective measure in combating alcohol use and informing people about its dangers, but they have yet to be applied in Canada or the UK.
Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines. (2018). Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2020-07/2012-Canada-Low-Risk-Alcohol-Drinking-Guidelines-Brochure-en_0.pdf
Emmanuela Gakidou, Murray, & Naghavi. (2018, August 27). Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: A systematic analysis for the global burden of disease study 2016. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. https://www.healthdata.org/research-article/alcohol-use-and-burden-195-countries-and-territories-1990%E2%80%932016-systematic-analysis
Nadine Yousif. (2022, January 17). Doctors are noticing patients are drinking more, fuelling more hospitalizations. thestar.com. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/01/15/doctors-are-noticing-patients-are-drinking-more-fuelling-more-hospitalizations.html
UK Chief Medical Officers’ Alcohol Guidelines Review: Summary of the proposed new guidelines. (2016). UK Department of Health and Social Care. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/489795/summary.pdf
Unintended consequences of COVID-19: Impact on harms caused by substance use, self-harm and accidental falls. (n.d.). Canadian Institute for Health Information | CIHI. https://www.cihi.ca/en/covid-19-resources/impact-of-covid-19-on-canadas-health-care-systems/unintended-consequences