British Columbians drinking at higher rates than before, new study finds

A new study from the University of Victoria has found that British Columbians consumed more alcohol during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the previous 20 years. 

Dr. Tim Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the university, which conducts the B.C. Alcohol and Other Drug Monitoring Project, says alcohol consumption has jumped around 15 per cent in that time.  

“If you look back 20 years ago, the average person in B.C. consumed about 8.2 L of pure ethanol per year, and that has now increased up to 9.3 L of pure ethanol,” Naimi said to host Robyn Burns on CBC’s All Points West

As a measure, 9.3 L of pure ethanol is equivalent to 104 bottles of 12 per cent wine per year, or around two bottles a week per person.

The amount consumed — which was measured by B.C. alcohol sales — differed by region. The Interior Health Authority had the highest rates of consumption at 13.69 L per capita and Fraser Health Authority had the lowest at 7.09 L.

Island Health (11.54 L), Northern Health (10.78 L), and Vancouver Coastal Health (7.53 L) round out the middle.

Naimi said the pandemic should be viewed as a bump on a rising curve.

“We’ve seen [a rising curve since] 2013 and 2014 where total consumption has increased eight or 10 per cent over that time. COVID appears to have caused another two or three per cent bump on top of that,” he said.

It’s a national trend. In another study by Hamilton, Ont.’s McMaster University, national alcohol sales during the pandemic were 5.5 per cent over projected sales, which means people bought $1.86 billion more in alcohol than predicted pre-pandemic.

Naimi said the spike may be due to people having more time on their hands during the pandemic, or trying to cope with more stress, but there are also policy changes in B.C. with respect to alcohol.

“Somebody in B.C. can buy alcohol from more places in more different ways at more hours of the day and night than they ever had before,” said Naimi. 

For instance, he said, there have been new relaxed policies around alcohol home delivery and take-out.

Naimi says there should be measures to mitigate this increase in alcohol consumption.

“Alcohol is a legal product. It’s enjoyed by many people and most people can drink in a low-risk way,” he said. “[We should] restore the balance on people enjoying that but also reducing the many harms that come not just to drinkers themselves but to other people [and] to taxpayers.”

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