Quebecers and alcohol in 2012: an overall healthy approach, slightly decreasing problems, a necessary reappraisal of the relationship between drinking quantity and frequency

Montréal, June 6th, 2012 – Quebecers still have a healthy approach to alcohol. While, over the past 10 years, drinking habits have become more regular, problems related to overconsumption seem to be slightly decreasing, following the trend toward declining consumption. However, a certain tolerance toward occasional heavy drinking, combined with an unjustified fear of the effects of regular drinking on health and the development of alcohol dependency, are now appearing. A big change of perception is necessary.

A minority of Quebecers are still drinking abusively — even dangerously — the degree of knowledge is decreasing in some areas and 6% of drivers admit to having driven while over the legal blood-alcohol limit. This is no doubt due to the fact that they are at very little risk of being stopped at a police sobriety checkpoint: fully-two thirds of motorists surveyed said they had not encountered a single such checkpoint in the past year.

Quebecers are also eager for knowledge and their top-priority topics are: how to talk with their children about drinking, the latest scientific data on the beneficial or harmful effects of drinking, how much alcohol is safe to drink, and the relationship between alcohol and health. Éduc’alcool, which still enjoys impressive credibility, is committed to meeting these needs in the coming five years.

Such were the main findings of a major five-year study conducted by CROP on behalf of Éduc’alcool and released today.

A portrait of stability

Attitudes and opinions are so entrenched that many of the 2012 results are very similar to those obtained in 2002 and 2007, or within the margin of error, particularly with regard to the social acceptability of alcohol, the circumstances in which people drink, and even people’s general opinions about drinking. Beliefs change slowly.

The most reassuring information revealed by the survey is that, overall, Quebecers have learned how to make alcohol a part of their daily lives. They have smoothly incorporated a certain model of drinking into their lifestyle and they are increasingly aware of various aspects of their drinking. In addition, they are very interested in learning more about drinking, specifically about low-risk drinking guidelines. Furthermore, we are pleased to note that our position on drunk driving has been strongly vindicated.

Incorporating the value of moderation

Éduc’alcool is obviously delighted to see that its slogan, La modération a bien meilleur goût/Moderation is always in good taste, is still very much top-of-mind, with a spectacular 85% awareness level among non-francophones. But the really good news in this survey is how moderation is becoming part of everyday life.

In fact, on average, Quebecers have just over three standard drinks a week, and they tend to have two and a half drinks per drinking occasion. It cannot be a coincidence that this amount corresponds to the approximate number of drinks after which it becomes illegal to drive. The connection is clear.

Moreover, the vast majority of Quebecers drink in places and under circumstances that promote moderation. They tend to drink at home, with friends and in restaurants, to celebrate happy events or when enjoying a good meal. Drinking is associated with relaxation and it is more about socializing than dependency.

The latest alcohol sales statistics in Quebec show a decline in the average purchase of 0.1 litre of pure alcohol per person per year, but a drop of half a litre of pure alcohol per drinker. This is consistent with the fact that Quebecers no longer seem to have the same drinking-related problems observed five or six years ago. Most indicators are even trending downward in this regard, although they are within the margin of error.

Real problems still require real attention

We can’t let the good news obscure the fact that vigilance is still required. In fact, it is more necessary than ever. There is no ignoring the results showing that 10% of regular drinkers felt that their drinking had a harmful effect on their health in the last year. Nor can we ignore the 6-7% of drinkers who admit to drinking heavily on a weekly basis.

Now that low-risk drinking guidelines have been established and widely publicized, we must pay attention to the fact that 27% of women who drink and 37% of men have exceeded the recommended weekly limits (three drinks for women and four for men) at least once a month in the last year. It is more important than ever to get the message across that moderation is a rule to which there can be no exceptions. Getting drunk even once is once too often.

On the other hand, almost all Quebecers know the Éduc’alcool recommendations for pregnant women: abstain from drinking from the moment you begin trying to conceive and continue abstaining throughout the pregnancy. However — and this is surely because of the lack of irrefutable scientific data on the subject — a majority of Quebecers believe that occasional drinking will not harm the foetus, or that the risk factor is very low. Not surprisingly, therefore, nearly three out of ten Quebecers think it is acceptable for a woman to drink occasionally during pregnancy.

De-dramatizing regular drinking, reducing tolerance for occasional excess

The results of the 2012 survey, which included new questions about low-risk drinking guidelines, reveal that Quebecers have a sometimes contradictory relationship with alcohol, and that they hold a number of biases, most likely based on inherited beliefs. Hence, there is a certain degree of tolerance for heavy drinking when it is occasional, even for pregnant women, and some people willingly admit that they exceed the recommended limits now and then, often at least once a month.

On the other hand, people are very suspicious of regular drinking, even if it falls within the low-risk drinking guidelines. Seven out of ten Quebecers would consider a woman who has two drinks a day, five days a week, or a man who has three drinks a day, five or six days a week, to be an alcoholic. Even if someone has one drink a day, five or six days a week, almost half of all Quebecers would still call that alcoholism.

This means Éduc’alcool faces a considerable challenge in educating Quebecers about the relationship between drinking quantity and frequency. We have to de-dramatize regular drinking—provided it is within the low-risk guidelines—and warn people about heavy drinking, even if it’s only occasional. We understand that we are dealing with deeply entrenched opinions and perceptions, but that is the lot of any educational organization.

Finally, Quebecers have told us very clearly where they want more information: how to talk about drinking with their children, the latest scientific data on the beneficial or harmful effects of drinking, and the relationship between alcohol and health. These are their top three priorities.

People want to drink, but they want us to keep helping them learn how to drink better. We will address those needs by providing practical information: how to be a responsible host, tools for measuring blood-alcohol content, the amount of alcohol it is safe to drink if you are driving, what a standard drink is. In short, Quebecers want us to continue helping them become more responsible for their own drinking.

Drinking and driving: our position is vindicated

Éduc’alcool has taken an unequivocal stand on impaired driving. Based on accepted scientific data, we know that the single most important factor in changing behaviour on the roads is whether people believe they will be arrested if they break the law. We have also stated loudly and clearly that before there can be any discussion on blood-alcohol content, the number of police sobriety checkpoints must be increased and people have to know about them.

We therefore added specific questions on this issue in our 21012 survey. And we have been proven right. While 6% of drivers admit to having driven while over the legal limit, this is largely because two- thirds of drivers think there is little or no danger of being stopped for impaired driving in Quebec. This attitude is perfectly understandable, given that we now know that 70% of drivers did not encounter a single police checkpoint in the last year (the figure rises to 75% in the Montreal region) and, even worse, that nearly two-thirds of them did not even see a sobriety checkpoint in the last 12 months. We shall continue to call for such basic measures to be implemented as a precondition for any conversation on drunk driving.

High credibility means added responsibility

Finally, we will be forgiven for noting with unabashed pride and satisfaction that Éduc’alcool’s credibility rating still stands at an impressive 92%. That figure is both gratifying and encouraging. It recognizes our successes and reminds us of what remains to be accomplished. We are responsible for continuing to improve Quebecers’ relationship with alcohol in that hope that all will truly come to believe that moderation is always in good taste.

Conducted among more than 1,101 Quebecers, who were interviewed by telephone for more than 18 minutes on average, the survey – the fifth of its kind since 1991 – has allowed the relationship that Quebecers have with alcohol to be studied and compared over the past 20 years.

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