The number of people who died as a result of alcohol rose to “new highs” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Statistics Canada says in data released today.
Preliminary data from the federal agency shows that there were 3,200 alcohol-related deaths recorded in 2019, before the pandemic. A year later, the number of deaths rose to 3,790, and increased again in 2021 when there were 3,875 alcohol-related deaths.
The 18 percent increase from 2019 to 2020 was the biggest year-over-year change in the past 20 years, Statistics Canada noted. Alcohol-induced deaths are deaths attributed to any of the causes of death listed in the report, including alcoholic liver disease, accidental poisoning and exposure to alcohol, and finding alcohol in the blood.
“These are mainly large increases [because] these numbers tend to be relatively static,” says Dr. Timothy Naimi, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria and a professor in the university’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.
“Having said that, it’s not surprising. We know that alcohol consumption has increased, although not to the same extent as deaths.”
He added that there is a similar phenomenon where alcohol-related deaths are on the rise in the US and Europe.
Kara Thompson, an associate professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS, says the number of deaths in Canada is concerning.
“They speak to the culture we’ve created where it’s acceptable to drink to deal with stress,” she said.
“I also think it speaks to the fact that people are not aware of the significant harm that can result from their alcohol consumption.”
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Younger populations affected
Younger generations made up the bulk of alcohol-related deaths recorded during the first two years of the pandemic.
Federal agency data shows that the number of alcohol-related deaths in the under-65 age group increased 27 percent between 2019 and 2020, with 2,490 alcohol-related deaths recorded in 2020.
That is significantly higher than the four percent increase in alcohol-related deaths among the over-65s in the same period.
The pandemic also saw an increase in deaths from accidental poisonings and exposure to harmful substances, especially among people under the age of 45.
Accidental poisoning includes various illegal, prescription and over-the-counter drugs, as well as solvents and pesticides.
In 2020, 4,605 people died from accidental poisoning or exposure to harmful substances, with about 57 percent dying under the age of 45, Statistics Canada reported. A year later, the number of accidental poisoning deaths grew to 6,310, with 3,600 of those people under the age of 45.
By comparison, at the previous peak of the overdose crisis in 2017, according to Statistics Canada, there were 4,830 deaths from accidental poisonings.
“I think what we’re seeing here is consistent with what county-level data has told us,” Naimi added.
The data released Thursday is preliminary, Statistics Canada said, because it does not include all deaths during that time and does not include information on deaths in Yukon. The agency said it gathered its data from medical certificates completed by a medical professional, medical examiner or coroner.
Health effects of alcohol not understood
Thompson adds that as a society we need to be more aware of the harmful effects of alcohol on our individual health.
Erin Hobin, a senior scientist at Ontario Public Health, echoed the sentiment, telling The Canadian Press that the public has relatively little awareness of the health effects of alcohol, aside from the increased risk of birth defects for those who drink during pregnancy.
The Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction’s low-risk drinking guidelines, which correlate health risks with the number of drinks per week, will be made official next week.
The proposed guidelines released last summer are significantly lower than previous suggestions of no more than 10 standard drinks per week for women and 15 standard drinks per week for men. In general, it now recommends no more than two drinks per week.
In making its guideline, the center said research shows the health-related risk from alcohol is negligible when consuming two drinks a week, moderate for three to six drinks a week, and consistently higher than that.