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Alcohol plays a multifaceted role within Canada’s cultural fabric, intertwining social, economic, and health dimensions. It serves as a prevalent aspect of social gatherings and celebrations, reflecting traditions and fostering camaraderie among Canadians. 

Beer and wine collectively dominate the market, accounting for two-thirds of total alcohol sales, though regional preferences diverge, showcasing unique consumption habits across provinces. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol sales surged to $25.5 billion in 2020/2021, marking a notable shift in buying patterns with fewer visits to liquor stores but higher off-premise consumption [1].

Despite its cultural prominence, alcohol consumption comes with associated health risks, prompting initiatives for informed guidelines by organizations like the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA).

Alcohol holds a significant place in Canadian culture, shaping social interactions and consumption patterns across the nation. With three in four Canadian adults engaging in alcohol consumption, understanding the landscape involves delving into spending habits, preferences in beverages, regional variations, and the evolving dynamics, including changes witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How Common Is Alcoholism In Canada

Seventy-five percent of Canadian adults partake in alcohol consumption, as revealed by recent statistics. In 2019, just over three-quarters, totaling 76.5% of Canadians aged 15 and older reported consuming alcohol. Among these, men exhibited a slightly higher rate of consumption (78.3%) than women (74.7%). Notably, individuals aged 20 to 24 years recorded the highest alcohol consumption rate at 84.4%.

Statistics from 2019 also highlight Canadian households’ spending habits, averaging $1,125 on alcoholic beverages. Of this amount, 71.0% was expended on alcohol purchases from stores, while 28.4% was allocated to purchases at restaurants or bars. Remarkably, this expenditure mirrored the amount spent on furnishings.

However, abstaining from alcohol is the choice for nearly a quarter, accounting for 23.5% of Canadian adults who do not engage in alcohol consumption.

Beer and wine constitute the lion’s share of alcohol sales in Canada. In 2020/2021, beer continued to dominate, accounting for 36.0% of total sales, followed closely by wine at 31.4%. Spirits held a share of 25.4%, while ciders and coolers accounted for 7.2%.

Geographically, preferences in alcohol consumption vary across Canada. Beer remains the popular choice in most regions, yet wine claimed the top spot in Quebec (43.5%) and British Columbia (33.4%). At the same time, spirits emerged as the predominant choice in the Northwest Territories, constituting 45.7% of total sales [2].

Impact of COVID-19 on Alcohol Use

During the initial year of the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol sales experienced a remarkable surge, marking the largest increase in over a decade. Liquor authorities reported a 4.2% spike, amounting to $25.5 billion in alcoholic beverage sales for 2020/2021.

Buying patterns underwent substantial changes amid the pandemic, with Canadians making fewer visits to liquor stores but purchasing larger quantities of alcohol compared to pre-pandemic times. The surge in off-premise consumption offset the decline in sales witnessed at bars and restaurants.

Moreover, heavy drinking among Canadians declined nationally in 2021. Approximately 5.1 million individuals, representing 15.6% of Canadians aged 12 years and older, reported engaging in heavy drinking. This was defined as consuming five or more drinks for men and four or more for women, at least once a month within the past year. Remarkably, this marked the lowest level of heavy drinking recorded since 2015.

Alcohol-Related Harms

Alcohol-related harm is a harsh reality. In 2019, around 21% of individuals who consumed alcohol within the past year, totaling 4.8 million people, experienced at least one alcohol-related harm. Notably, young adults aged 20 to 24 years (40%) and youth aged 15 to 19 years (38%) reported a higher prevalence of alcohol-related harm compared to adults aged 25 years and older (18%).

Tragically, alcohol-related deaths surged by over one-fifth (+21%) since the onset of the pandemic, resulting in 3,875 deaths attributable to alcohol consumption in 2021. A significant majority, approximately two-thirds of these deaths, occurred among Canadians aged 64 years and younger.

The Rise of Costs

The cost of alcoholic beverages also rose substantially, experiencing a 5.8% increase in prices year-over-year in December, marking the steepest escalation since 1991. This rise, however, lagged slightly behind the overall inflation rate (+6.3%) for the same period, signifying a notable impact on consumers’ wallets.

Alcohol prices experienced the most substantial year-over-year escalation in British Columbia (+9.1%) and the least in Manitoba (+4.2%) [2].

From occasional social drinking to patterns indicative of misuse, discerning what constitutes moderate use versus problematic behaviors is pivotal in addressing alcohol-related concerns. 

Clarifying the distinctions between use, misuse, and abuse provides a foundational understanding for individuals and professionals alike in promoting healthier relationships with alcohol.

Criteria for Alcoholism in Canada

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a complex and multifaceted condition characterized by a problematic pattern of alcohol consumption that leads to significant distress or impairment. In Canada, the criteria for diagnosing alcoholism align with international standards outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and include:

Impaired Control: Individuals find it challenging to limit the amount of alcohol consumed or to stop drinking despite repeated attempts to cut it down.

Craving: There is a strong desire or craving for alcohol, leading to an intense urge to drink.

Physical Dependence: The development of tolerance (needing more alcohol to achieve the desired effect) and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when alcohol consumption is reduced or stopped.

Continued Use Despite Consequences: Despite negative consequences in personal, social, or professional domains, individuals continue to drink excessively.

Neglect of Other Activities: Alcohol use becomes a central focus, leading to neglect of important social, occupational, or recreational activities.

Duration and Frequency: The pattern of problematic drinking persists over time and becomes a regular, recurrent behavior.

Diagnosing alcoholism involves a comprehensive assessment by healthcare professionals trained in addiction medicine or psychiatry. Treatment options, including therapy, medications, and support groups, aim to address the physical, psychological, and social aspects of alcohol use disorder, facilitating recovery and long-term management [3].

Is the Legal Drinking Age in Canada Changing?

Data till early 2022 suggests that there have been no imminent changes to the legal drinking age in Canada. The legal drinking age varies by province and territory, commonly set at 19 years in most regions, except for Alberta and Quebec, where it is 18. However, legislative changes are subject to government decisions, and alterations to the legal drinking age would require comprehensive discussions, considerations of societal impacts, and potential public consultations.

Any modifications to the legal drinking age in Canada would involve thorough assessments of social, health, and economic implications. The focus remains on promoting responsible alcohol consumption among legal-age individuals while safeguarding public health and safety.

What is a Standard Drink?

Understanding what constitutes a standard drink is crucial in promoting responsible alcohol consumption. In Canada, a standard drink contains approximately 13.6 grams of pure alcohol. This standardization allows individuals to gauge and moderate their alcohol intake effectively. 

Common examples of a standard drink include:

  • A 12-ounce (355 milliliters) beer with about 5% alcohol content
  • A 5-ounce (148 milliliters) glass of wine with about 12% alcohol content
  • A 1.5-ounce (44 milliliters) shot of distilled spirits or liquor with about 40% alcohol content

These measurements serve as a baseline for individuals to track their alcohol consumption accurately. Understanding the standard drink allows people to adhere to recommended limits and reduce potential health risks associated with excessive drinking.

Canada’s Alcohol and Health Guidance offers evidence-based recommendations on alcohol consumption, aiming to empower individuals to make informed choices about their well-being. This guidance, founded on the latest alcohol-related research, replaces the previously issued Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines (LRDGs) from 2011.

The core principle of this guidance rests on the notion of autonomy within harm reduction, emphasizing that all alcohol use carries inherent risks and that individuals in Canada have the right to be informed about these risks.

Key highlights from the guidance encompass [4]:

  • Alcohol abstinence brings notable benefits, such as improved health and better sleep.
  • Limiting consumption to 2 standard drinks per week or less is likely to mitigate alcohol-related consequences for oneself or others.
  • A weekly intake of 3–6 standard drinks heightens the risk of developing various cancers, including breast and colon cancer.
  • Consuming 7 or more standard drinks per week significantly escalates the risk of heart disease or stroke.
  • Each additional standard drink substantially amplifies the likelihood of alcohol-related repercussions.
  • Consuming more than 2 standard drinks on a single occasion elevates the risk of self-harm and harm to others, increasing the likelihood of injuries and violence.
  • During pregnancy or while attempting to conceive, there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption.
  • For breastfeeding individuals, avoiding alcohol altogether is the safest choice.
  • Irrespective of one’s position on the risk continuum, reducing alcohol intake is advocated for better overall health.

In an ongoing effort to prioritize public health and safety, Canada has recently unveiled updated guidelines regarding alcohol consumption. These guidelines, formulated by health experts and policymakers, aim to provide clearer recommendations for individuals regarding the consumption of alcohol for better overall well-being. 

Let’s delve into the specifics of these new guidelines and their implications.

Evolution Of Alcohol Guidelines In Canada

Canada’s approach to alcohol guidelines has evolved over the years, reflecting advancements in scientific understanding and changing societal attitudes toward alcohol consumption. Previously, guidelines primarily focused on recommended weekly limits and standard drink sizes. However, the introduction of new guidelines by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) takes a more comprehensive and holistic approach, considering various aspects beyond mere quantities.

Key Recommendations Of The New Guidelines

Lowering Risk: Reducing Consumption:

The updated guidelines emphasize the importance of reducing alcohol consumption to lower health risks. They suggest moderation and advocate for reducing alcohol intake to decrease the likelihood of developing alcohol-related health issues. Specifically, the guidelines recommend:

Abstinence during Pregnancy: Zero alcohol consumption is recommended for individuals who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant to avoid potential harm to the fetus.

Limiting Weekly Consumption: For those who choose to drink alcohol, the guidelines suggest a weekly limit to mitigate health risks. They encourage no more than a certain number of standard drinks per week for both men and women [3].

Considerations for Special Populations:

Recognizing the diverse population, the guidelines highlight specific considerations for various groups:

Young Adults: A cautionary approach is advised for individuals under the legal drinking age, emphasizing delayed initiation of alcohol consumption and avoiding it completely for as long as possible.

Older Adults: Considering potential interactions with medications and increased sensitivity to alcohol, older adults are encouraged to drink with caution and consideration of their health status [3].

Beyond Quantity: Quality of Life and Well-being

The new guidelines emphasize that it’s not just about the quantity consumed but also about the context and impact of alcohol on an individual’s life. 

Factors such as mental health, social and environmental circumstances, and personal situations are highlighted as crucial considerations when assessing alcohol consumption.

1. JAMA Network. National Retail Sales of Alcohol and Cannabis During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Canada.

2. Stats Can Plus. Dry February, you say?

3. CTV News. What you should know about Canada’s new alcohol guidelines.

4. Canadian Centre On Substance Use And Alcohol. Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health.



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