Thursday, August 19, 2004

Quit pretending - that beer is a drug

VICTORIA - There's probably lots of good reasons to fret about a machine that lets you inhale your gin instead of drinking it.
But I can't shake the sense that the quick call for a ban is just another example of our reluctance to consider alcohol a drug.
Alcohol Without Liquid machines are already in a couple of British bars, where patrons pay $12 to pull on a face mask and inhale a vapour of oxygen and alcohol. Knock-offs are cropping up on EBay, and the machines are expected to make their U.S. debut soon.
Already, nervous hands are wringing. Critics complain the machines could lead to people getting drunk quickly (though the company says it takes about 20 minutes to inhale the equivalent of one drink). They observe rightly that impaired people would pass breathalyzer tests. And they wonder if users' brains - now protected by the time it takes to process drinks - could be damaged by a rush of alcohol.
Good concerns.
But on the other hand the machines offer some remarkable harm reduction benefits.
No calories, or the risk of obesity related diseases. No damage to the liver, or other internal organs.
That means getting drinkers to switch to vaporizers could prevent about 190 deaths a year in B.C. directly related to alcohol, and another 900 indirect deaths, just by reducing the physical damage.
That's not the way we think about alcohol. We don't see it as a drug, let alone a dangerous one, even though it will kill more people each year than heroin or cocaine overdoses.
Far be it from me to mock peoples' claims that they like the taste. I do too. And I've heard people talk convincingly of the special delight of the latest Okanagan merlot.
But I am prepared to wager that if you banned the sale of merlot - heck the sale of all red wine - in B.C., the overall consumption of alcohol would not fall by one litre. All those people who so loved red wine, or single malt scotch, or strawberry coolers, would find something else to drink if they weren't available.
Because ultimately all those bottles we buy are just the delivery system for the drug. The effects of alcohol - the relaxation, the buzz, whatever - really drive our consumption.
Look at those coolers and flavoured ciders, the hottest growing category of the last several years. We knocked back about 55,000,000 bottles in B.C. last year, some $93 million worth. They're tasty and everything, but not so tasty that we'd be grabbing them up at $2 a bottle if they didn't offer the mood-altering effects of alcohol.
B.C. liquor stores took in almost $2 billion last year. Some that was from tourists and visitors, I suppose, but then British Columbians were also travelling and drinking. The stores sold 347 million litres of beer, wine, vodka and the rest, enough to fill about 300 Olympic pools, and about 110 litres per adult.
Alcohol is by far the most widely used and available drug in our society - and the most heavily promoted to recruit new users.
It's also easily the most damaging, resulting in some 1,800 deaths each year and countless tragedies, from shattered families to lost jobs. Take alcohol out of the mix and our problem of backlogs in the courts would disappear, and our waiting lists for health care would shrink overnight.
Not to be preachy. I did my bit to help the Liquor Distribution Branch to those record sales last year. Sometimes a little mood-altering is just the ticket.
But the quick dismissive reaction to the alcohol vaporizer - gimmick that it may be - showed again our reluctance to acknowledge alcohol as another potentially addictive, potentially dangerous drug that we seek for its chemical effects on our brain.
And that's too bad. Alcohol has huge effects in our society. Our attitude towards it - and public policies - should be based on reality, not a polite pretence.
Footnote: Our biggest failure is not providing youth with accurate information about alcohol. A McCreary Centre Society survey of B.C. high students found 63 per cent of 15 year olds had tried alcohol. About 45 per cent of high school students who reported using alcohol also reported binge drinking within the last month. That's a massive public failure.

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