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Worried about Canada’s New Alcohol Guidance? Try a Damp January

Experts say most Canadians don’t have to pursue an all-or-nothing approach to reap the benefits of drinking less.
People who consume seven or more drinks per week are considerably more likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke. 

As some British Columbians embrace temporary sobriety during dry January, new national alcohol guidance informed by Victoria-based researchers suggests sobriety doesn’t need  to be all or nothing to improve the health of people who do not have  alcohol dependence issues.

In August, a report on  alcohol guidance from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction  suggested Canadians should drink fewer than six standard drinks per  week to avoid the worst alcohol-related harms, such as certain cancers,  stroke and liver disease.

The report, based on advice from scientists  at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University  of Victoria, suggests nearly halving the amount of alcohol previous  guides have indicated was “low risk.” 

The resulting formal guidance, expected on Jan. 17, is clear that risk doesn’t stop or start at six drinks.

While consuming one or two  drinks per week is relatively low risk, between four and six increases  risk for cancers such as breast or colon. People who consume seven or more drinks per week are considerably more likely to develop heart  disease or have a stroke. 

Not drinking at all is the  only way to avoid alcohol-related harms, the report explains. “Each  additional standard drink radically increases the risk of these  alcohol-related consequences,” it reads.

This sobering guidance may spur some  readers to ask whether they should stop drinking altogether, or to stick  their heads in the sand and avoid the question entirely.

Anyone who feels worried is not alone, says an expert on alcohol use, but change does not have to be all or nothing.

Dry January often helps people consider and re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol even after it ends, said CISUR scientist Adam Sherk, but he prefers a “damp January” approach. 

That means trying to drink a bit less in  general for the month and not giving up on the project if you do drink  at certain points.

“There are so many concepts, like drinking,  that we see as binary when they should be seen as a spectrum,” said  Sherk, an alcohol-related harms researcher who co-authored the report  with CISUR colleagues. “For some people a dry January is attainable and  for others it is not.”

Setting a limit for yourself before you go  out, alternating alcoholic beverages with water or pop and ensuring you  have eaten before you drink can all help achieve a drier January, Sherk  said in an interview last Friday.

Creating rules around which days of the week you drink and choosing not to drink alone can also be helpful, he added.

“If you’re drinking three beers three days a  week and you end up drinking twice a week in January or replacing one  beer a night with sparkling water, that’s still going to have a positive  impact on your health,” Sherk said.

Reducing alcohol intake can improve sleep, energy levels and mood, among other health benefits.

But knowing the risks of alcohol and how  much you are actually drinking is key to reducing your intake, which  alcohol labelling makes it hard to determine. 

Only about half of Canadians know even low  alcohol use of three drinks per week is linked to increased risk of at  least seven different types of preventable cancer and several other serious health conditions like liver and heart disease, Sherk said. 

Difficult hangovers that  worsen with age are also only one of a host of impacts on mood and  energy that can linger for up to two weeks, research suggests.  Alcohol poisoning and driving under the influence continue to be fatal,  and drinking any amount during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol  spectrum disorder.

“People should be fully aware of the health  effects of alcohol,” said Sherk. “It’s the same as with smoking.  Knowing the risks will help people be more mindful of how much alcohol  they want to drink over time.”

The standard drink measure is equivalent to  about five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, or a  regular-size can of beer, cider or pre-mixed cooler at six per cent  alcohol.

Yet despite serious risks, alcoholic  products don’t have warning labels and there is no standardized unit  size of alcohol indicated on each drink’s label. 

A can of strong beer at 12 per cent is  equivalent to two standard drinks despite being sold as a single  serving. Mixing hard liquor with pop and juice can also make it harder  to know how many servings are in a beverage someone might consider “one  drink.”

In 2017, backlash from the alcohol industry interrupted a study that put warning labels  on alcohol in the Yukon. Before it was interrupted, this study saw  warning labels reduced alcohol consumption, similar to the impact  tobacco warning labels have had. 

Earlier in 2022, a bill mandating warning labels on alcoholic beverages across Canada was tabled in the Senate, and Ireland is on track to do the same.

In the meantime, Sherk says taking note of  the alcohol by volume, or ABV, noted on the product and the volume of  each drink can help you know how much you’ve had and stay within a limit  you set for yourself.

Sherk is currently developing an app that  will allow people to track their alcohol use without having to calculate  standard drinks themselves. His team expects the app will launch in  late 2023.

All of these strategies work under the  assumption that drinking is normal and everyone does it, Sherk noted.  “Alcohol has a hallowed place in society as a normal drug to use to  celebrate or to relax,” he said.

In reality, about 25 per cent of Canadians  don’t drink, for reasons ranging from health and dependence issues to  religious and financial reasons.

Mic Deane, co-founder with Zelika Brown of Sober Babes,  a Vancouver-based sober social group,  says she’s seen rising interest  in trying sobriety or becoming sober since the initiative started early  last year. 

The group, aimed towards women, trans and  queer people, gained more than 200 followers in the first nine days of  this year’s dry January.

Deane, 26, had done sober stints on and off  for years to improve her mental health, including dry Januaries and  aiming for up to 100 days sober.

“It was really hard to actually make that  decision [to become sober] because I think nobody had kind of told me  that you don’t need to be an alcoholic to stop drinking, you can just  stop drinking,” Deane told The Tyee in a Monday interview.

By the 70- or 90-day marks of her sobriety  stints, Deane said she started to feel bored and lonely. She would give  in and have a drink, and then abandon the endeavour entirely.

“I realized I needed to be able to  socialize with other sober people, and I was surprised where I couldn’t  find anything but Alcoholics Anonymous in Vancouver,” said Deane.

Deane shared her frustrations in an early 2022 TikTok  which garnered more than 600 likes and comments from people expressing  similar challenges. It snowballed into a massive group chat and then an  events page to accommodate the demand for places to meet fellow sober  people.

Sober Babes has since hosted several events  across Vancouver for women, queer and trans people who are sober or  interested in socializing without alcohol, including paint nights and a  Halloween party.

Deane credits the social aspect as key in  staying sober for most of the last year and says anyone curious about  being sober or drinking less should stay busy with new activities to  avoid “boredom drinking.”

And even when an event or gathering isn’t  specifically dry, offering non-alcoholic options like mocktails can make  everyone feel more welcome and less pressured into drinking, she says.

Dry January can be a helpful exercise but drinking less isn’t all or nothing, Sherk and Deane both stressed.

“It’s very hard to go from drinking all the  time to just staying 100 per cent sober, and not everyone wants to do  that anyways,” said Deane. “So don’t get hung up on it if you don’t make  it the whole way through dry January, because all the other days still  count.”