Two things stand out in the 2017 survey on Quebecers and Alcohol: one is the reduction in drinking resulting from greater awareness of health issues, combined with the consistency of certain answers over the last 15 years; the other is the minimal progress with regard to excessive drinking among those who were already drinking beyond the recommended limits.
Attitudes and opinions are so entrenched that many of the 2017 results are very similar to those obtained from 2002 to 2012, or within the margin of error, particularly as concerns the social acceptability of alcohol, the circumstances in which people drink, and even people’s general opinions about drinking. Beliefs change slowly.
As seen previously, more than eight out of ten Quebecers drink, and wine is now solidly positioned as the alcoholic beverage consumed most frequently and by the most people: three quarters of Quebecers now appreciate wine. Beer is dropping slightly in popularity, although it is a favourite among six out of ten respondents, while spirits remain the consistent choice of about one in two. About a third of Quebec drinkers also choose other alcoholic beverages (cider, premixed drinks, etc.).
The most reassuring information revealed by this survey is that a majority of Quebecers are more aware of the impact drinking has on human health and most have learned how to make alcohol a part of their daily lives. They have smoothly incorporated a certain model of drinking in their lifestyle and they are increasingly aware of various aspects of their drinking.
However, improvements are far less impressive among excessive drinkers: 25% of Quebec drinkers exceed the low-risk drinking guidelines at least once a month. It’s hard not to see this is a reflection of the way that alcohol is now perceived by society as “ordinary,” not to mention that alcohol abuse is even glamourized. And then there is the incomprehensible and inexcusible laxity on the part of the government, which, far from doing the right thing, is actually making the situation worse through various decisions and failure to take action.
In fact, all of Éduc’alcool’s calls for measures that would have a real impact on excessive drinking have fallen on deaf ears: the government refuses to make the “Service in Action” course mandatory for owners of licensed establishments and their serving staff; it refuses to set a minimum price for artisanal products sold in grocery stores; it has decided that minimum beer prices do not apply to artisanal beer sold outside grocery stores; it refuses to lift a finger as people continue to use cross promotions to get around the minimum-price requirement for beer; it contributes to the perception that alcohol is “nothing special” by citing so-called experts whose sole concerns are deregulation and profits; it augments the downward pressure on alcohol prices… and the list goes on.
Still, Quebecers are very interested in learning more about alcohol, particularly how it affects their health. Above all, we are pleased to see our position on impaired driving vindicated. There has been a significant decline in the number of Quebecers who have seen a road block, and the situation is deteriorating. Once again, it is instructive to note that the moment something is left to the government, things get worse.
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, still tops the awareness charts at 89%. But the really good news is that moderation is becoming part of everyday life.
We can be proud of the fact that, on average, drinking has dropped to less than 3 standard drinks a week, compared to 3.3 drinks five years ago, and people tend to have 2.2 drinks per occasion, as opposed to 2.5. 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.
We are also very pleased to note that the vast majority of Quebec drinkers drink in places and under circumstances that promote moderation. They generally drink at home, among 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 that things have remained stable at an average of 8.5 litres of pure alcohol per person per year. However, one in ten drinkers has felt that drinking has affected their physical health. That’s almost twice as many as five years ago. Does this mean people are more aware, as a result of Éduc’alcool campaigns, or is the situation actually changing? No doubt it’s a combination of the two.
Real problems still require real attention
We can’t let the good news obscure the fact that vigilance is more necessary than ever. There is no ignoring the results showing that 11% of regular drinkers felt that their drinking had a harmful effect on their health in the last year. Nor can we ignore that 6-7% of drinkers admit to drinking heavily on a weekly basis, and 25% do so at least once a month.
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.
Another disturbing statistic is the 6% of Quebec drivers who admit to having driven with a blood-alcohol content above the legal limit.
On the other hand, there is reason to celebrate the fact that 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. Still, and this is surely because of the lack of irrefutable scientific data on the subject, half of all Quebecers believe that occasional drinking presents little or no danger to the fetus. Not surprisingly, therefore, nearly one in four Quebecers think it is acceptable for a woman to drink occasionally during pregnancy.
The challenges ahead
The results of the 2017 survey reveal that Quebecers have a sometimes contradictory relationship with alcohol, and that they hold a number of biases, most likely based on inherited beliefs.
For example, there is a certain degree of tolerance for heavy drinking when it is occasional, 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. Six out of ten Quebecers consider a woman who has 2 drinks a day, 5 days a week, or a man who has 3 drinks a day, 5 days a week, to be an alcoholic. Even if someone has 1 drink a day, 5 days a week, nearly four in ten 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. Another important lesson to be learned from this survey is that we must not let down our guard or give up working to increase awareness.
Finally, Quebecers have told us very clearly where they want more information: how to talk about drinking with their children, the relationship between alcohol and health, and how much they can drink and still drive safely. Although there has been a slight decline in interest, these remain the top three concerns.
People have also told us about their specific needs. We will be responding by providing practical information and further explaining the benefits of moderate drinking. In short, Quebecers want us to continue informing them to help them become more responsible drinkers.
Drinking and driving: our position is vindicated
Once again, this year’s survey examined the issue of drinking and driving in depth. The results show clearly that Éduc’alcool was spot on in ceaselessly promoting measures based on research done here and elsewhere.
Éduc’alcool has taken an unequivocal stand on impaired driving. Based on accepted scientific data, we believe 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 have been proven right. If 6% of drivers admit having driven while over the legal limit, this is largely because a little over 75% of drivers did not encounter a sobriety checkpoint even once in the last year. What’s worse, over 70% of drivers did not even see such a 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. Similarly, we shall continue to call for the “Service in Action” course to be made mandatory for personnel in all licensed establishments in Quebec, just as it is in societies similar to ours, but where the governments act more responsibly.
High credibility means added responsibility
Finally, we will be forgiven for noting with unabashed pride and satisfaction that Éduc’alcool’s credibility rating has risen from an impressive 91% to an even more impressive 95%, which 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.