Northwestern Ontario loves to drink. With the good times, however, comes risks to health, safety, and the community at large.
Fortunately, one of the ways municipalities can help is by reviewing and updating their Municipal Alcohol Policy (MAP) to be consistent with the latest strategies to mitigate health harms related to alcohol misuse.
The Town of Fort Frances will look at updating its MAP after receiving a presentation from Dr. Kit Young-Hoon, Medical Officer of Health for the Northwestern Health Unit, during its regular meeting Monday night.
Dr. Young-Hoon said it's a fact that alcohol is a part of the culture of Northwestern Ontario (and Canada at large). But it's also causing harm in our region, with substantial health and social costs to individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole.
This past year, the Northwestern Health Unit released two reports on alcohol use trends in the region (“Northwestern Health Unit Alcohol in Our Communities: A Report on Alcohol Use in Northwestern Ontario 2017" and "Northwestern Health Unit Report on Alcohol Trends 2017”) and the findings were sobering.
More than three-in-five people (61.7 percent) in the health unit's catchment area
exceeded Canada's low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines in 2013-14, which is statistically higher than the provincial rate of 45.3 percent.
(The low-risk drinking guidelines suggest no more than 10 drinks a week or two drinks a day for women; and no more than 15 drinks a week or three drinks a day for men).
Dr. Young-Hoon noted these higher rates of incidence cannot be pinpointed to one specific age group or socio-economic group.
“This is an issue across the region for the entire population,” she stressed.
Meanwhile, in the health unit's area, more than half of the population (54.1 percent) aged 12-18 engaged in under-age drinking in 2013-14, which is statistically higher than the provincial rate of 31 percent.
In 2015, 7.2 percent of mothers in the health unit's area consumed alcohol while pregnant, which is more than twice as high as (and statistically different from) the provincial rate of 2.5 percent.
And in 2015, the incidence rate of emergency department visits from alcohol misuse in the Northwestern Health Unit was 287.7 per 10,000 people—more than six times higher than the provincial rate of 44.0 per 10,000.
Dr. Young-Hoon said it's evident alcohol poses health risks.
In Canada, alcohol is second only to tobacco as a leading risk factor for death, disease, and disability, according to the World Health Organization.
Furthermore, an estimated 1,000-3,000 new cancer cases in Ontario in 2010 were attributed to alcohol consumption, according to Cancer Care Ontario.
In addition to harming the heart, liver, and numerous other organs, alcohol can harm the brain, leading to risky decision-making and behaviour, resulting in accidents, injuries, and violence.
“This is an issue that not only affects the individual that chooses to drink alcohol but also the surrounding community,” said Dr. Young-Hoon.
She explained a MAP is a policy tool that aligns with provincial liquor laws and outlines the appropriate use of alcohol on local government-owned or managed property.
A MAP can ensure renters execute safe events where adults can have fun, raise money, and drink alcohol while at the same time inform the public about their responsibilities and potential liability when hosting events where alcohol is available.
It also includes regulations developed by municipalities that require groups to use more responsible serving practices and to manage the drinking environment.
Its goal is to encourage moderate, responsible consumption for those who choose to drink alcohol by changing social norms and the value placed on alcohol in a community.
“It is demonstrated that Municipal Alcohol Policies reduces the severity of problems such as public intoxication, drinking in unlicensed areas, impaired driving, under-aged drinking, vandalism, assaults, injury, or death,” Dr. Young-Hoon noted.
This, in turn, has benefits to the municipality, such as minimizing the likelihood of lawsuits, convictions, and fines and fewer repairs and less maintenance due to vandalism, to name just two.
The town's current policy has not been revised since 1995 and Dr. Young-Hoon said while it has some strengths, there's some areas it could improve.
Some suggestions include:
- adding youth events to those not eligible for a Special Occasion Permit (SOP);
- limiting the number of drink tickets sold at one time to eight or less;
- specifying a ratio of workers to attendees;
- adding special security measures for large events;
- restricting youth admission to adult SOP events (private family events not included);
- having low-alcohol drinks available;
- having no extra-strength beer available
- restricting alcohol advertising in facilities accessible by youth;
- adding short-term penalties for policy violators; and
- adding signage for accountability, safe transportation, ticket sale limit, acceptable I.D., and restricted areas.
After Dr. Young-Hoon's presentation, Coun. Paul Ryan suggested council review its current MAP.
“I see it's been 22 years since we've looked at our policy, and we've had some strengthening suggestions made to us,” he noted.
"I think it's about time we looked at this, bring it to committee, and update it.
Deputy mayor June Caul agreed, noting alcohol misuse is a serious issue and council needed to be reminded of it.