Shifting the alcohol norms: Health unit report focuses on building a culture of moderation

Shifting the alcohol norms: Health unit report focuses on building a culture of moderation

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The Northwestern Health Unit (NWHU) is shining a light on beverage consumption with the release of the report Alcohol in Our Communities: A Report on Alcohol Use in Northwestern Ontario. The report takes a look at impacts and health harms of alcohol misuse in our region, shares feedback received from community members and local organizations, and makes recommendations for moving forward to address alcohol misuse in Northwestern Ontario.

“Compared to the rest of the province, the evidence show us that residents of Northwestern Ontario are less likely to follow the low-risk drinking guidelines, are more likely drink heavily, and are more likely to end up in the hospital because of alcohol misuse,” said Dr. Kit Young-Hoon, Medical Officer of Health for the NWHU.

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In Ontario, alcohol consumption is the second leading cause of death, disease, and disability. Alcohol consumption results in substantial health and social costs to individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole. Recent changes from the provincial government have led to increased access to alcohol in communities.

“Fortunately there are things that we can do as individuals and as a community to promote drinking within healthy guidelines, and make drinking in moderation the new norm for our region,” say Dr. Young-Hoon, “We look forward to working alongside agencies and municipalities, to promote a culture of moderate alcohol consumption using tools like community education and policy development to create a supportive environment.”

The full report, and its supporting report focused on local alcohol statistics, are both available on the health unit website.

Drinking problem?

Some of the key findings of the report include:

  • Over 3 in 5 people (61.7%) in the NWHU area exceeded the low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines in 2013/14, which is statistically higher than the provincial rate of 45.3%.
  • The rate was highest in the younger population; 71.9% of those aged 19-44 in the NWHU area exceeded the guidelines.
  • The rate was statistically higher amongst males; 61.8% vs 50.6% in females.
  • The rate of heavy drinking* is statistically higher in the NWHU area; 23.3% of the population partook in heavy drinking in 2013/14 compared to 17.9% of the provincial population.
  • Rates are higher in males, who have a rate of 29.3%, statistically higher than the female rate of 17.4%.
  • In the NWHU area over half of the population (54.1%) aged 12-18 partook in underage drinking in 2013/14, which is statistically higher than the provincial rate of 31.0%.
  • 7.2% of mothers in the NWHU area consumed alcohol while pregnant in 2015, which is over twice as high as (and statistically different from) the provincial rate of 2.5%.
  • The rate was highest amongst mothers under 20 years old; 14.3%, which is statistically higher than the rates all other age groups.
  • In 2015, the incidence rate of emergency department visits from alcohol misuse in the NWHU was 287.7 per 10,000 people. This was over six times as high as the provincial rate of 44.0 per 10,000.

* The rate of heavy drinking refers to the proportion of the population aged 12 and older who report having had five drinks or more on one occasion for males, four drinks or more for females, at least once a month in the past 12 months.


Low-Risk Drinking

Consuming alcohol can lead to short-term effects such as slowed reaction time, slurred speech, impaired decision-making and judgment, blurred vision, a hangover, risk of injury, risky sexual behaviour, and impaired driving. It can also lead to long-term harms like brain damage, ulcers, liver disease, heart disease, and various cancers (oral, liver, breast, colorectal). Low-risk drinking helps promote a culture of moderation, supports a healthy lifestyle and reduces your risk of both short- and long-term harms. If you choose to drink, the guidelines below can help you decide when, where, why and how. For these guidelines, a “drink” means:

  • 341 ml (12 oz) of 5% alcohol beer, cider or cooler
  • 142 ml (5 oz) of 12% alcohol wine
  • 43 ml (1.5 oz) of 40% alcohol spirits or liquor

Remember, it’s the amount you drink and the alcohol content of a drink that affects you, not the type of drink. Whether it’s beer, wine or spirits, they all contain 0.6 oz (13.6 g) of pure alcohol.


Guideline #1

Reduce your long-term health risks by drinking no more than:

  • 10 drinks a week for women, with no more than 2 drinks a day most days
  • 15 drinks a week for men, with no more than 3 drinks a day most days

Plan non-drinking days every week to avoid developing a habit.


Guideline #2

Reduce your risk of injury and harm by drinking no more than 3 drinks (for women) and 4 drinks (for men) on any single occasion.


Guideline #3

Do not drink when you are:

  • driving a vehicle or using machinery and tools
  • taking medicine or other drugs that interact with alcohol
  • doing any kind of dangerous physical activity
  • living with mental or physical health problems
  • living with alcohol dependence
  • pregnant or planning to be pregnant
  • responsible for the safety of others
  • important decisions.


Guideline #4

If you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or about to breastfeed, the safest choice is to drink no alcohol at all.


Guideline #5

If you are a child or youth, you should delay drinking until your late teens. Talk with your parents about drinking. Alcohol can harm the way your brain and body develop. If you are drinking, plan ahead, follow local alcohol laws and stay within the limits outlined in Guideline #1.



  • Set limits for yourself and stick with them.
  • Drink slowly. Have no more than 2 drinks in any 3 hours.
  • For every drink of alcohol, have one non-alcoholic drink.
  • Eat before and while you are drinking.
  • Always consider your age, body weight and health problems that might suggest lower limits.
  • Do not start to drink, or increase your drinking, for health benefits.


If all Canadian drinkers followed the guidelines, it’s estimated that alcohol-related deaths would be reduced by approximately 4,600 per year.


Based on research, and community and partner feedback received, the NWHU, in partnership with other community groups and agencies, will promote a culture of moderate alcohol consumption by working on:

Healthy Public Policy

  • Assisting municipalities to update their alcohol policy where appropriate, and work to educate our communities on why municipal alcohol policies are important.
  • Working with communities towards healthy public policy related to alcohol.

Education & Skill Development

  • Educating the public and community groups on the benefits of stricter controls on alcohol availability and marketing
  • Educating the public on the health harms of alcohol use through awareness campaigns such as Rethink Your Drinking, and skill-building activities.
  • Continuing to educate the public on harms associated with underage drinking and the provision of alcohol to minors through local partnerships and campaigns.
  • Continuing to promote Canada’s Low-risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines and encourage people to drink in moderation.
  • Supporting families and youth with skill-building opportunities that help them develop resilience and reduce underage alcohol use and misuse.

Creating Supportive Environments

  • Promoting, encouraging and hosting family friendly alcohol-free events in our communities.
  • Continuing to work with law enforcement to reduce impaired driving, including distributing Low-risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines during RIDE programs.
  • Working with health care services and other service providers to support pregnant women to reduce alcohol consumption during pregnancy

We know that changing the culture around alcohol consumption in Northwestern Ontario will not be an easy task, and will require the use of a variety of tools and strategies implemented through community partnerships.

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