Study gives Canada’s northern territories failing grades on curbing alcohol harms

A study out of the University of Victoria gave Yukon and N.W.T. failing grades, and Nunavut a D, on the territories’ policies related to alcohol. (CBC)
When marked on their efforts to bring down alcohol-related harms, the territories got dismal grades.

Two studies released Wednesday from the University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research look at provincial, territorial and federal policies to curb the damaging effects of drinking on people’s health and safety. The studies were funded by Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The study, which focused on provinces and territories, gave Nunavut (eastern Arctic) a D grade. Yukon (western Arctic) and the Northwest Territories (central Arctic) were both slapped with Fs.

To be sure, none of the provinces achieved high marks. The average grade was a D. Ontario scored the highest with a C.

The study looked at 11 policy areas, from alcohol advertising, to liquor law enforcement, to the tracking of alcohol-related hospitalizations, deaths and crimes.

The territories had the highest rates of hospitalizations due entirely to alcohol from 2015 to 2016, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Tim Stockwell, director of the institute and one of the study’s authors, said many liquor control policies that exist in the provinces were absent in the North, specifically those related to pricing.

None of the territories have set minimum drink prices.

While Stockwell commended the territories for retaining “the public ownership, by and large, of the distribution and retail system,” he said government control “hasn’t been put to the best use for health and safety purposes.”

Catch problem drinking

Stockwell said the territories could do more to encourage family doctors to screen patients for signs of problem drinking.

Patients could be asked to fill out a behaviour questionnaire every couple years with questions about alcohol consumption. If it appears they have issues, a doctor or nurse could follow up with advice, test patients’ liver function and give them a “diary to complete if they agree to set a lower number of drinks per week,” said Stockwell.

“Believe it or not, those simple steps that don’t take very long can have a major impact.”

Alcohol highly accessible in Canada

Stockwell attributed the territories’ Fs in part to the number of liquor stores and bars relative to their small populations.

Nunavut was something of an outlier in this area. Alcohol is highly restricted in the territory, but despite this, the study says it still had high levels of alcohol-related harms.

Stockwell said there is still a “huge black market” for liquor in Nunavut.

“But,” he said, the territory has “a fantastic policy … that’s been developed very thoughtfully, and resources have been put into it to try and improve the situation there.”

Policies aren’t the only things that affect how much we drink and what harm there is. But they do make a big difference.

Tim Stockwell, director of University of Victoria's Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research

Yukon and N.W.T. weren’t all bad when it comes to alcohol policy.

The two territories are the only jurisdictions in Canada that put warning labels on cans and bottles.

Stockwell noted that good policies don’t always immediately line up with outcomes.

“Sometimes you get very good policies in place where you’ve got a crisis, and the policies have been introduced to deal with the crisis, and it’ll take a while for things to get better,” he said.

“Policies aren’t the only things that affect how much we drink and what harm there is. But they do make a big difference.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Mayor in Arctic Canada requests help as alcohol seeps into restricted community, CBC News

Finland: Finland’s alcohol consumption declines by 15%, Yle News

United States: Envisioning recovery and rebuilding a life in the Alaskan Arctic, Alaska Public Media

Sidney Cohen, CBC News

For more news from Canada visit CBC News.

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