Alcohol availability: Can too much of a good thing be a bad thing?

Posted on Friday, March 29, 2019

Beer bottle being emptied in a glass


Since 2015, being able to buy alcohol in grocery stores throughout Ontario has probably helped the busiest among us pick up a last minute bottle of wine before dinner, or a few beers just before the game starts. However, new research suggests that it may have also increased the number of emergency room visits due to alcohol-related causes.

This is the conclusion reached by Dr. Daniel Myran and his colleagues, whose research was based on the summative project Dr. Myran conducted while completing a Master’s of Public Health at Harvard and a Public Health and Preventative Medicine Residency at uOttawa.

While prior research has suggested in places where alcohol is more available people tend to drink more and have more alcohol-related harms, a number of questions have remained. When the Ontario government decided to allow grocery stores to sell alcohol in 2015, it created an opportunity to better understand the relationship between alcohol availability and health harms.

Comparing statistics from before and after this policy change, Dr. Myran and his co-authors found a link between increased alcohol availability (defined as having a more outlets selling alcohol, with longer hours of operation) and an increase in alcohol-related emergency room visits.

The authors report that, since 2015, there has been a 15.1% increase in the number of alcohol outlets in Ontario, with the vast majority of them (88%) being the grocery stores now selling alcohol. When the authors looked at data on emergency room visits from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, they found that emergency room visits due to alcohol increased by 17.2% compared to 6.2% for all types of emergency room visits, subsequent to the sale of alcohol in grocery stores. In addition, the increase in emergency room visits due to alcohol was 6% greater in areas of the province that started selling alcohol in grocery stores compared to areas that did not.

“Alcohol causes enormous harms in society and most Canadians know someone who has or had an alcohol-use disorder. While selling beer at the grocery store can seem fairly benign, evidence from Ontario suggests that this change likely resulted in increased alcohol-related harms,” said Dr. Myran. “I hope that other provinces and territories considering similar changes to how they sell alcohol take caution from these findings.”

Dr. Myran’s research was published in Addiction and was conducted in collaboration with researchers at Harvard University and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.


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