POLITICS

Doctors say Ontario needs to address its 'drinking problem'

04/02/2013 02:39 EDT | Updated 06/02/2013 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Ontario has a drinking problem and the government must do something about it, the organization representing the province's doctors said Tuesday.

The Ontario Medical Association said heavy drinking is very common and gets far less attention than alcoholism, even though it also has potentially serious consequences.

"People don't always realize that heavy drinking, as opposed to developing a clinical disorder, has other kinds of health consequences, whether it's developing liver disease or other things that people forget about," OMA President Dr. Doug Weir said Tuesday.

"The problems are there now, we see them every day," he said, pointing to chronic conditions such as insomnia and depression as well as dangerous behaviours that can cause injury or death.

The association cites studies that show about 80 per cent of Ontario's population reports consuming alcohol and more than 15 per cent reports drinking heavily.

Excessive drinking among Canadians tends to peak in the early to mid-20s and gradually decrease starting in the 30s, though it's more widespread in underage circles than some may believe, the group says.

Heavy drinking is defined as consuming more than the recommended weekly maximum, which is 10 standard drinks for women and 15 for men.

The issue is the focus of a policy paper to be released April 17th.

A draft version obtained by The Canadian Press examines public health programs that can help mitigate the harms of heavy drinking on society and the drinkers themselves.

It said efforts to target teenagers — the age when drinking typically starts — would be more effective if they focused on moderation rather than abstinence.

"Right now, the program they're using, which is called DARE, has been found not really to be very useful and there's a number of other programs that take a more harm-reduction kind of attitude," Weir said.

"The evidence shows that with teenagers in particular, if you tell them just not to drink, that doesn't work."

Health Minister Deb Matthews said she "absolutely" agrees the province has a drinking problem, saying "you don't have to go further than an emergency department on Saturday night to know that."

She said the government funds a number of initiatives aimed at tackling alcohol and drug abuse, and it wants to make sure those efforts get results.

"It's important that... where programs are effective, we continue to support and perhaps expand, and programs that don't work, we really have to rely on the evidence and spend where it makes a difference for people," Matthews said.

The province is on the third year of its 10-year mental health and addictions strategy.

When it announced the strategy in 2011, the government said the first three years would focus on children and youth.

Matthews said planning has begun for the next phase, which will include efforts to address alcohol addiction among adults.

In the draft report, the OMA made several recommendations, including calls for further research into the factors that lead to heavy drinking and for programs to address those factors.

Another would have the Liquor Control Board of Ontario funnel part of its projected $100 million revenue boost into harm-reduction initiatives.

A spokeswoman for the LCBO said spending decisions are made at the ministry level and not by the board.

Matthews couldn't say whether LCBO revenues would be applied to alcohol-related programs.

"Where the money comes from is less important than where the money goes," she said.

"It's very important that we spend where we get effective results."