Significant alcohol policy change raises questions for Australia

Important points:
  • Health authorities in Canada have issued new guidelines on alcohol consumption.
  • The guidelines also recommend the mandatory labeling of all alcoholic beverages with health warnings.
  • Health experts in Australia hailed the move as a step in the right direction.
Health authorities in Canada have issued new guidelines on alcohol consumption and recommend one to two standard drinks per week as “low risk”.
The guidelines, published in a report released this week, also recommend mandatory labeling of all alcoholic beverages with health warnings.
They mark a significant change from the country’s previous 2011 guidelines, which restricted alcohol to 10 standard drinks for women and 15 for men, and aligned with Australia.

Some public health experts in Australia hailed the move as a step in the right direction, reflecting the current evidence base on alcohol-related harm.

What are Canada’s new guidelines?

canadais based on a two-year project by the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) that examined nearly 6,000 peer-reviewed studies and involved 23 scientists.
It provides a “continuum of risk” in weekly alcohol consumption, where the risk of alcohol harm is low for those who consume two or fewer standard drinks during this period.

This risk is moderate for those who consume between three and six standard drinks per week, and the risk of developing multiple types of cancer increases. For those who drink seven or more drinks, the risk is “increasingly high” and the risk of heart disease or stroke increases.

The standard drink, according to the guidelines, is a 12 oz bottle of beer (5 percent alcohol), a 5 oz glass of wine (12 percent alcohol), or 16 oz of spirits (40 percent alcohol).

In Australia, a standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol.

What’s behind the shift?

Researchers in Canada said the new guidelines are based on developing evidence that less consumption means a lower risk of harm from alcohol.
“The evidence is clear that every drink counts. It is also clear that it is never too late to make changes,” said CCSA Executive Director and Physician Alexander Caudarella. “Any reduction in alcohol consumption can be beneficial.”
Professor Emmanuel Kunsche, director of the Center for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University, said the new guidelines are a “step in the right direction”.
“Not only have they cut back on drinking, but they’ve recognized that all alcohol consumption is harmful,” he told SBS News. “Both recommendations are really important from a public health perspective.”
He said there was mounting evidence that light drinking posed some risk. A Published earlier this month in the Lancet Public Health magazine, also concluded that no alcohol consumption is safe for our health.
Professor Simone Pettigrew of the George Institute for Global Health agreed the evidence continues to mount.
“Large-scale meta-analysis provides new evidence supporting the risks associated with alcohol use,” she told SBS News.
Clare Hughes, chair of the Cancer Council’s Diet, Alcohol and Physical Activity Committee, said experts are learning more about the risks associated with cancer.
“This seems to provide much more direction for the advice the community is receiving regarding the amount of alcohol they can or should consume,” she said.

“At the heart of the whole discussion is what level of risk is acceptable?” said Professor Kunsche.

What do Australia’s guidelines say?

Australia’s guidelines for reducing the risks associated with alcohol consumption were revised in December 2020. They recommend healthy men and women to drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than four in a day.
“The less you drink, the lower your risk of harm from alcohol,” it says.
Professor Kunsche said these revised guidelines are more restrictive than previous ones.
“But countries like Canada are further ahead in this game. I really applaud their approach to even more conservative policies,” he said.

Ms Hughes said the 2020 revisions reflect a “tremendous piece of work” and the Cancer Council is not asking for a review.

People clinking glasses.

The new guidelines represent a significant change from the earlier Canadian guidelines of 2011. Source: Pixabay

Calls for mandatory alcohol labeling

The report also recommends the mandatory labeling of all alcoholic beverages with health warnings.
There is evidence that additional health warnings can raise public awareness of the causal link to cancer and reduce consumption.
Professor Pettigrew said this had been proposed in Australia for some time but has yet to be realised.
“It has taken more than a decade for a pregnancy warning label on alcoholic beverages to be approved in Australia,” she said, adding that plans are currently underway to introduce warning labels on alcoholic beverages in Europe.

“There’s a lot to be gained by making sure drinkers are informed,” she said.

Ms Hughes said Cancer Council is aware of the role health warnings could play in improving community awareness, but that it should not be the only way to make consumers aware of alcohol-related risks.

“It’s not just the label — that would have to be part of a larger strategy to raise awareness of alcohol-related harm,” she said.

What’s next for Australia?

Professor Pettigrew said she hopes Australia “will continue to move in the same direction with our policies to ensure the community understands the risks associated with alcohol consumption”.
For Professor Kuntsche, the ongoing discussion about guidelines and new findings is crucial in order to change drinking norms in the long term.
“When it comes to alcohol, one thing to remember is that we don’t have to drink. But we have our consumer norms. And that’s the big problem,” he said.
An analysis of the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found that around three in four Australians aged 14 and over had consumed alcohol in the past 12 months.
Almost every second person (45 percent) agrees that adults regularly use alcohol – more than with any other drug.

“As we continue the discussion, I hope that cultural norms will shift towards more restrictive norms of consumption – and in that context the guidelines are very important,” he said.

Ms Hughes said raising awareness of the guidelines and investing in promotion is crucial.
“There is still work to be done to address alcohol culture in Australia,” she said.
In a statement, the Department of Health said it was important to ensure consumers “have access to accurate and clear information about what they are consuming and its effects in order to make informed choices”.

“Alcohol is identified as a priority substance in the National Drugs Strategy, with alcohol consumption contributing to a range of adverse health outcomes and significantly increasing Australia’s disease burden,” it said.

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