Alcohol kills, so why do so many of us keep consuming it?
Booze has been on my brain recently. This, for sad and personal reasons, is not the time to explain why I have been thinking about it. But for the same reason it is not the time for me to provide this explanation, I feel very compelled to share what I have learned about the devil’s drink.
As I typed “devil’s drink” I chuckled to myself. In writing this blog, I am aware I risk sounding like a hypocrite. So let me confess before I move on.
I have been drinking alcohol since childhood. My parents gave us a little sip of wine or beer on special occasions when we were kids. Then, when in my mid-teens I started working in fine dining restaurants, I learned about all kinds of cocktails, spirits, and fine wines. I went through the binge-drinking late teen and early 20s years, and then I went through the wine-drinking mom years.
Although there were occasions and even periods of time when I drank too much, I didn't worry about it being a problem. But I was innately aware of two things. The first was that the more I drank regularly, the higher my tolerance grew, which led to drinking more on subsequent occasions. The second was that despite knowing that it often left me feeling unwell-headache, bed spins, vomiting-I would drink, anyway. The first issue is understandable. The second behavior, however, is inexplicable!
It is rare that I drink any alcohol other than wine. An occasional Bailey’s and coffee or peach Bellini, but hard liquor has never been my thing, and I have never acquired a taste for beer. But wine, I love. Red, white, rosé, sparkling… you name it, I enjoy it. It does not always like me, though. My husband rarely drinks alcohol of any kind, never has. So, when I have wine, I am usually drinking it alone. I realized a few years ago that over time, my glass of wine in the evening had slowly morphed into three glasses, which was very close to an entire bottle. I didn’t feel drunk, and it wasn’t preventing me from doing the things I needed to around the house, but I knew drinking that much was not good.
I went cold turkey for three months. I did not make a big announcement, I just silently made a choice. The experience taught me a couple of valuable things. The first was that I could do it. I learned I was not dependent on wine. It was easy to stop drinking; this was a relief. I also realized that wine was a depressant. After a couple of glasses of wine, I was overly sensitive, and that usually led to nothing good. But I also learned that I really do like wine. I like the taste of it, and I like the glasses. I dislike getting drunk or any of the physical feelings associated with it. So now I limit my wine drinking to one glass of mostly red and only on a few days a week.
I was already happy with my choice before I started doing research for this blog, but now I am thankful too. It is shocking that governments do not issue clearer warnings about the dangers of alcohol consumption. Years ago, governments made the choice to plaster cigarette packages with grotesque, graphic images warning of the health effects of smoking. Marketing cigarettes or tobacco products to youth has been illegal for what seems like forever. And over the last three or four years, there has been outrage about vaping products being introduced to youth. And yet, while the microscope and outrage have been on these products, alcohol brands have quietly increased the number of products available, and a majority target young people.
Let me put it simply, alcohol kills!
None of us, however, should increase the amount of alcohol we drink. Governments know alcohol is bad for us, but they are not warning us and discouraging consumption as they should. Health Canada states that “any amount of alcohol consumption can have risks to your health.” The US Center for Disease Control’s guidelines on alcohol “do not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason.”  Their warnings are too vague, however, and therefore ineffective. Let me put it simply, alcohol kills!
Last summer, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published results from a modeling study in The Lancet - Oncology. They reported that alcohol consumption is a leading cause of cancer globally, saying they associated four percent of all new diagnoses in 2020 with alcohol. In Canada, they linked alcohol use to 7,000 new cancer cases in 2020. One-quarter of breast cancer and one-fifth of colon cancer cases were linked to alcohol consumption.
Women who have only one alcoholic drink per day have a five to nine percent higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who do not drink at all.
Research has also shown that alcohol consumption increases the risk of oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, esophageal, liver, breast, and colorectal cancers. The risk of head, neck, and esophageal cancers increases five-fold in heavy drinkers. Women who have only one alcoholic drink per day have a five to nine percent higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who do not drink at all. There is also accumulating evidence that alcohol consumption increases the risk of melanoma, and prostate and pancreatic cancers.
The health risks don’t end with cancer, though. Drinking alcohol can also lead to liver disease, heart disease, and stroke. It can cause memory loss, impair understanding, and interfere with logical thinking. These effects are permanent; it's called alcohol-related brain damage. 
Then there are the other deaths and injuries because of alcohol. Statistics Canada reported drunk drivers killed 155 people in 2019 and caused 540 injuries. Statistics Canada also reported that in 2020 there were 2,270 alcohol-related deaths (poisoning, accidents, etc.). An increase from the previous year.
I have not even touched on the social harm and costs and it is still clear that alcohol is a dangerous drug that people should be better warned against. It is also clear that governments at all levels are aware of the damage alcohol causes.
The question then is why are they so quiet about it? Instinctively, my answer to this was, “money.” Governments heavily tax alcohol and many people drink it. It must be a cash cow. I did a little research to see if my instinct was correct. Well, it turns out I was right, but the government is wrong!
$10.9 billion in revenue was offset by $14.6 billion in societal costs.
In a paper published in 2020 entitled At-a-glance–The alcohol deficit: Canadian government revenue and societal costs from alcohol author Adam Sherk, Ph.D. reported that the Canadian government earned $10.9 billion in revenue from alcohol in 2014. Governments often defend alcohol sales because they claim they use this revenue to fund healthcare and education. But here’s the kicker. When combining all societal costs related to alcohol, including healthcare, criminal justice, and lost productivity, the government loses money. A lot of money.  The Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms project reported that the $10.9 billion in revenue was offset by $14.6 billion in societal costs. A $3.7 billion per year deficit!
So, this is my rallying cry, folks. Back off on the booze. Take care of yourself and help our economy at the same time. I am not saying you must quit drinking alcohol altogether. I am asking you, though, to consider how much and how often you drink. If it is more than a couple of drinks a week, maybe consider substituting with something else.
The good news is entrepreneurs are finally catching on. There are a ton of new non-alcoholic beverages on the market. They may appear pricy when compared to sodas or fruit juice, but when compared to alcohol, the prices are palatable. It’s time we learn we don’t need a buzz to have a good time. Especially if that buzz is going to kill us down the road! A toast for thought this holiday season.
 https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/alcohol/low-risk-alcohol-drinking-guidelines.html  https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/alcohol-consumption-linked-to-thousands-of-cancer-cases-in-canada-in-2020-study-1.5509353  https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet  https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body  https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet  https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/what-to-know-about-alcohol-and-mental-health  https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210712/dq210712b-eng.htm  https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/reports-publications/health-promotion-chronic-disease-prevention-canada-research-policy-practice/vol-40-no-5-6-2020/alcohol-deficit-canadian-government-revenue-societal-costs.html