Last week I attended a local citizen’s meeting conducted by Jim Prentice, former MP and member of Stephen Harper’s cabinet, and leading candidate for the leadership of Alberta’s ruling Progressive Conservative Party. I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Prentice whether he was in favor of new policies to fight excessive alcohol consumption: specifically, restrictions on alcohol advertising and higher alcohol taxes.
I asked this question because over the last few months, I’ve discovered that the most recent epidemiological literature on alcohol paints a bleaker picture of the drug’s harms than anyone used to think. Earlier this year in its report on alcohol and world health, the World Health Organization attributed 5.9% of worldwide deaths (3.3 million per year) to alcohol consumption. As recently as 2004, the WHO had reported the figure as 3.2%: almost certainly an underestimate. This year, the WHO reports, in a highest-ever statistic, that 6.8% of Canadians—more than two million people—have an alcohol use disorder.
Furthermore, the link between alcohol and cancer has recently become clearer: we now know that even in low doses, ethanol has a carcinogenic effect on every internal tissue it touches as it decays into acetaldehyde during digestion. Alcohol is linked to esophageal cancer, stomach cancer and liver cancer, along with others.
The WHO recommends restrictions on alcohol advertising and high alcohol taxes. This would diminish the public health impact of alcohol without compromising the ability of adults to purchase and drink it. These proposals were my suggestion to Mr. Prentice.
Not to my surprise, he was caught off guard by my question. While he acknowledged some of the societal harm caused by alcohol, he did not appear to have in his platform a plan for addressing it. Prentice turned down the policies I suggested without explaining why.
If Prentice has a blind spot on alcohol harm, however, he isn’t unique. While Jim Prentice is an intelligent, principled and even visionary politician (I plan to vote for him), he’s like any other public intellectual in Canada. He’s likely never seriously considered the idea of meaningful changes to alcohol laws, and is probably unacquainted with the literature on the medical and social harms of the drug.
Like all Canadians, Prentice hopes for a better Canada, and intends to leave a richer inheritance to the next generation. He and other people of influence have an opportunity to make this happen: they can turn the tide of policy on our society’s last, and deadliest, acceptable drug.