Includes excerpts from
Buzz Kill: The Corporatization of Cannabis

Issue #19 January 2023

This issue of Drug Policy Alternatives addresses the currently heightened attention to the risks of alcohol consumption. The attention has arisen from the release of revised low risk drinking guidelines from the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA). The release has also been a starting pistol for renewed debate about warning labels on alcohol product containers.

Some bars and sampling rooms at craft brewers and vineyards use a clever marketing tactic to introduce products with which customers may be unfamiliar. They offer a flight of products – usually 3-6 samples of different products served in small glasses. The customer gets to try several products without committing to a larger glass, bottle, or a pint’s worth of just one product. Variety can be nice too – especially when each product is paired with a small dish of food.

I am going to draw upon that strategy in presenting a flight of commentaries on low risk drinking levels and warning labels from my forthcoming book “Buzz Kill: The Corporatization of Cannabis”. There are potent lessons on the corporatization of cannabis that are best understood through familiarity with a flight of other, more long-lived drug industries: alcohol, tobacco, and pharma. Stories related to low-risk drinking guidelines and warning labels offer lessons steeped in pertinent experience.

Canada’s Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines were developed by a team of alcohol researchers in 2011 to provide evidence-based guidance to Canadians on maintaining low-risk alcohol use. The research team reviewed the available evidence and identified circumstances for zero consumption such as pregnancy and driving. Other activities like operating a chainsaw might also be added. But that is probably an easy extrapolation for most people. The guidelines also set limits for low-risk consumption. The 2011 guidelines specified daily limits of two standard drinks for women and three for men. The weekly limits were 10 standard drinks for women and 15 for men. A standard drink is defined by an equivalent amount of alcohol by volume: 1.5 ounces of 40% distilled spirits, or 5 ounces of 12% wine, or 12 ounces of 5% beer or cider. Each of these standard drinks has exactly 0.6 ounces of absolute or pure alcohol.

Fast-forward a decade. Given that the guidelines were based on research that is now more than a decade old, CCSA assembled a team of experts to review more recent research. I had not spent much time keeping on top of the research on alcohol consumption levels and harm, but from what I had seen, I predicted in Buzz Kill that we should expect the revised limits to be lower. I also predicted that the alcohol industry would be paying close attention.

I was right on both counts, but they were easy calls to make – especially the second one.

The revised set of guidelines was drawn from a review of nearly 6,000 peer-reviewed studies. When the dust settled, more than 20 experts representing 16 organizations agreed on the following revised guidelines:
• 1–2 standard drinks per week represents a low level of risk
• 3–6 standard drinks per week represents moderate risk
• 7+ standard drinks per week represents increasingly higher levels of risk.

The risks involve various types of cancer as well as increased risk for violence.
Alcohol industry lobby groups were prepared for the release of the new guidelines. Strategically crafted public statements conveyed the industry’s support for education about low- and high-risk drinking, while stopping short of endorsing the revised guidelines.

The alcohol industry’s less-public communications about education on alcohol harms suggest a much less tolerant attitude. The territory of Yukon in Canada hosted a study on the impact of warning labels about drinking practices and cancer risk. The study was abruptly halted by the Yukon Liquor Corporation when alcohol industry lobbyists threatened the Corporation with legal action. A 2017 Access to Information request from The Globe and Mail unveiled emails to the Corporation from alcohol industry lobby organizations Beer Canada, Spirits Canada, and the Canadian Vintners Association. These organizations, usually fierce competitors for market share, came together in a union of mutual interest. They described the content of the warning labels as “false” and “alarmist”, and the study’s methodology as “fatally flawed”. They also challenged the objectivity of the research team.

The project was designed by a team of alcohol researchers from Canada and the United States and was led by researchers at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) at The University of Victoria. The study had the support of several public health authorities in Canada. The link between alcohol and at least six distinct types of cancer has had international verification from the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the American Society of Clinical Oncologists.

While the association of alcohol with heightened cancer risk has attracted most of the attention, alcohol also has a connection with heightened crime and violence. Data from the Canadian Substance Use, Costs and Harms database show a role for alcohol in close to 1 in 3 criminal cases. It was also the only drug involved in 1 out of 5 violent crimes. One might expect that these statistics would warrant a sobering warning on the otherwise benign face of alcohol product labels and alcohol advertisements. Imagine this warning emblazoned upon the label of an alcohol beverage:
Warning: indiscriminate use can induce violence and other criminal behaviour.

That warning has a sharper point on it than does the customarily timid prompt to “Please use responsibly” that occasionally cowers in a barely legible font in a bottom corner of alcohol print ads. But that’s what you get when government allows an industry to decide what information the public receives, and how it receives it. A 2022 Canadian Cancer Society survey determined that 8 out of 10 Canadians favoured health messages or warnings on alcohol products. Canada’s highly permissive industrial-regulatory complex is out of touch with, and apparently indifferent to, the overtly expressed interests of citizens.

When viewed through a historical lens, we see that health- and safety- related concessions made by the alcohol industry have been achieved only because it was dragged kicking and screaming into doing so. Now the industry expects a gold star for advising people not to drink and drive or drink when pregnant. As for warning labels – for cancer or criminality – it appears that much more dragging will be required. We can also expect a lot more kicking and screaming. As for regulation, without a priority of public rather than profit protection, we can probably expect little to change in the absence of intensified public protest. Government will continue to behave like the relative at family gatherings who avoids the debates of the day by quickly drinking too much and falling asleep on the couch.

Mike DeVillaer
Hamilton Ontario Canada
January 23, 2023