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Is drinking on the rocks?

New alcohol guidelines draw reaction from Dr. Strang, Halifax bar district

4 min read
Glass of beer
caption Previous alcohol guidelines said 10 drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men were a low health risk. Now, that number has dropped to two drinks a week for men and women.
Olivia Piercey

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, said it will take “months, if not years” to change societal drinking habits in the wake of new Canadian alcohol guidelines.

In an exclusive interview with The Signal, Strang endorsed a federally-sponsored report that recommends a maximum of two drinks a week. However, he also acknowledged the challenge in upending a longstanding alcohol culture.

“There’s a lot of work we need to do now to raise awareness and understanding and guidance, to create environments around purchase and consumption of alcohol, that will facilitate people’s knowledge and understanding,” Strang said in a video interview from his office.

“The ultimate goal is to influence the choices people make and hope that more people consume less alcohol. That’s the fundamental message – less is better, less is healthier.”

Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Robert Strang.
caption Dr. Robert Strang says that while health officials are not telling people to stop drinking, “less is better, less is healthier.”

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) released a report in January announcing it had lowered the recommended limits for alcohol consumption.

The previous CCSA report, released in 2011, said 10 drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men were a low health risk. Now, that number has dropped to two drinks a week for men as well as women.

Argyle Street reaction

Argyle Street in downtown Halifax was lined with pub-goers on a frosty evening in late January. As some waited to enter bars, others stumbled down the sidewalk chatting, laughing and flagging down cabs.

Pub-goer Blaise D’Albertanson told The Signal that two drinks a week is too ambitious of a goal.

“If you can approach what is recommended, that’s better than not approaching what’s recommended,” he said. “If I drink nine drinks per week, that’s major progress.”

D’Albertanson said unattainable goals might be discouraging for most people trying to make a change.

“You’re just not going to achieve them and you’re going to feel bad for yourself,” he said. “I would say, just reduce, and then you’ll be healthier and closer to what doctors know is healthy.”

Strang said at the end of the day individual Canadians will have to decide how much to drink.

“We’re not telling people to not use alcohol,” he said. “We’re working to make sure that they have good, current and accurate information that the use of alcohol can impact their health.”

Guys drinking at a bar in Halifax
caption One Halifax bar owner says patrons are already drinking less alcohol, but that the drinks they do buy are more expensive.
Olivia Piercey

The CCSA report said three to six drinks a week increases the risk of cancer, and that seven or more drinks a week increases the risk of stroke and heart disease.

Less drinking, better quality

Cheryl Doherty, owner of The Old Triangle Irish Alehouse in Halifax, told The Signal she doubts the new guidelines will affect business given that customers have already been drinking less alcohol. But while they might not be buying as many drinks, Doherty said the ones they do buy are more expensive.

“It’s been on our radar for a long time,” said Doherty. “People aren’t going out saying, ‘What’s your cheapest beer?’ People are going out saying, ‘What do you have on tap?’”

Strang said there is work to be done to come up with alternatives to drinking alcohol. Doherty said alternatives such as mock-tails have already gained popularity.

“One of the biggest increases in our own sales and market share in the past year has actually been in the non-alcoholic sector,” said Doherty.

She added that food and music, not alcohol, can be the centrepiece of a night on the town.

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