Student drinking habits and Canada’s new guidelines

Many students fall into ‘high risk’ category 

Image supplied by: Journal File Photo
The new guidelines say no drinks are safe.

Even one drink a week could harm your health, the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) declared on Jan. 17. The news was covered extensively across Canadian media, but at Queen’s, students barely looked up from their beers.

“I do not think that these new guidelines will have any impact whatsoever on student’s alcohol intake,” Ben Greenberg, ArtSci’ 25, wrote in a statement to the Journal. 

Cancer, heart disease, and stroke have been named possible consequences of alcohol consumption by the CCSA’s newest report. Their recommendations now state that even one drink a week increases your risk of health complications—a far cry from Health Canada’s previous 10 to 15 drink guidelines

Katie Baxter, ArtSci ’24, remembers how, during her Kinesiology lecture, everyone “kind of laughed at the regulations being reduced,” in an interview with The Journal.

Queen’s, a renowned ‘party school,’ is known for its drinking culture. Queen’s placed third in Maclean’s ‘Top Party Schools’ ranking from 2017 to 2020, before the magazine discontinued this list.

According to an anonymous survey conducted by The Journal, close to half of Queen’s students surveyed reported drinking more than seven drinks a week, placing them at a ‘high risk’ for health issues according to the new guidelines. This behaviour has withstood police forces and mass fines.

Shelby Mitchell, ArtSci ’23, thinks the “majority of students will not reflect on [the guidelines] because they’re already comfortable in their habits.”

“They’re definitely not thinking of the long-term effects,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

However, Greenberg doesn’t think students are simply “rejecting the science and research that went into creating the guidelines.” He believes they don’t think the health consequences could ever actually affect them.

Citing a Shawn Desman song, Greenberg said, “We’re old enough to know better, but too young to care.”

According to Catherine Paradis, director of research at CCSA, alcohol can have serious consequences for youth.

“While it’s true that liver disease develops after years of heavy drinking, it can also after a series of binge-drinking events,” Paradis said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. 

“One doctor told me the youngest he’s seen was a 23-year-old girl entering the hospital with liver disease [as a result of binge drinking],” Paradis recalled.

Alcohol-related liver disease is on the rise across the country, especially in youth. Paradis hopes that the new “Youth and Alcohol” section of the guidelines can place greater emphasis on this issue.

That said, the guidelines are not all bad news for students.  

In an interview with The Journal, Sam Buttemer, director of the Master of Public Health program at Queen’s, explained that alcohol “has increasing side effects with increasing exposure.” Every extra drink you have increases your risk of health issues.

Previously, Canada’s alcohol guidelines were based on thresholds. People thought that if they had fewer than 10 to 15 drinks per week, they were ‘safe.’

According to Buttemer, by presenting drinking on a low risk (two drinks a week) to high risk (over seven drinks a week) continuum, the new guidelines model how alcohol actually works while presenting a silver lining. Although every drink you have increases your risk of health issues, every drink you don’t have reduces your risk. 

“Do I need to order a full pint or is a half pint enough?” Buttemer prompted.

Individual choices such as these are important, but for public health professionals, changing the culture around drinking is the ultimate goal. At universities, alcohol marketing plays a huge role in the drinking habits of students, argue experts such as David Jernigan, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.

“People drink the marketing,” Jernigan said in an interview with The Journal.

“Every year, alcohol companies lose their best customers: they die. They have to replace those customers, and the best time to do it is when they’re young.” 

He explained campaigns on “social media,” which are “attached to influencers and encourage brand ambassadorship” are the most successful.

At Queen’s, Cottage Springs, a vodka cocktail company, employs students as brand ambassadors and has run many successful social media campaigns, including their C.S.U. (Cottage Springs University) campaign.

Cottage Springs and their brand ambassadors declined to comment on their advertising methods, despite many requests from The Journal.

In the new report, CCSA researchers recommend that warning labels—such as the ones on tobacco products—on alcohol bottles could be a way to counter this marketing. However, Kenneth Wong from the marketing faculty of Smith Business School disagrees.

“It’s hard for me to believe [warning labels] would be more effective [than other interventions],” Wong said in an interview with The Journal. “If [consumers] don’t believe in the guideline, then the warning becomes irrelevant.”

Speaking to why students might maintain their drinking habits in the face of warning labels and health guidelines, Jernigan said there are “many reasons” why people choose to drink.

When asked through the anonymous survey if there were any benefits to drinking, students responded almost unanimously: socialising.

“It supports social connection,” one student remarked. “It helps to alleviate anxiety in a social setting for me,” another said. One simply wrote: “happiness.”

Buttemer acknowledged the complexity involved in student drinking habits and understands it’s unreasonable to assume the guidelines will make every student completely give up drinking.

“There are very few things that are consequence free, and it’s just worth knowing what those consequences are when you make your decisions,” Buttemer said.

“Part of the human experience is doing things that we enjoy and make us feel good. Alcohol can be a part of that.”


Advertising, Alcohol, binge drinking, drinking culture

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