Brock University: Brock prof weighs in on proposed Canadian alcohol guidelines

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New proposed guidelines recommending Canadians consume no more than two alcoholic drinks per week to reduce health risks should be taken with a grain of salt, says Brock University researcher Dan Malleck.

The Professor of Health Sciences and expert on the history of liquor laws in Canada says a report published earlier this week by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) offers a “distorted view” of alcohol’s health impacts.

The report indicates health risks escalate quickly above six standard drinks per week, especially for women, saying three to six drinks a week can increase the risk of developing certain cancers, while more than seven drinks per week can increase the risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

In comparison, current Canada Health guidelines, also created by the CCSA and last updated in 2011, recommend men limit their alcohol consumption to a maximum of three drinks per day and 15 per week, while women should limit to no more than two drinks per day and 10 per week.

“In this new report, the CSSA is following the normal distortion the public health industry applies to risk,” Malleck says. “Talking about ‘increased risk’ can be misleading when there’s no balance presented between risk and likelihood.”

For example, if a non-drinker has a one in 100,000 chance of contracting a disease, and a drinker has a two in 100,000 chance, that’s a 100 per cent increase in risk, which “sounds pretty dire,” he says. However, the likelihood of getting that disease is still only 0.002 per cent.

Furthermore, Malleck says the studies viewed for the report look at alcohol consumption and specific health outcomes, but do not consider other behaviours that may be connected, such as the fact that people often eat ‘bad’ food when drinking or that drinking earlier in life may have taken place in a smoky bar.

“This is because it’s much more difficult and costly to do cause-and-effect studies that encompass the actual nuances of everyday life,” he says. “It also doesn’t permit the space for determining if a behaviour helps avoid a negative outcome.”

Not included are any positive benefits to moderate alcohol consumption, including social aspects that can be protective against stress, anxiety and suicidal ideation, Malleck says.

“All of those things are harder to track to a biomedical outcome,” he says. “By assuming there is no positive value of alcohol in people’s lives, the research ignores other potentially lethal or damaging activity that may have been averted due to drinking.”

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