Why Binge Drinking Is on the Rise in Canada—and Why It’s So Dangerous

“One of the biggest health problems we have in this country…”

In the 1970s, Jackie Rai was a young mother with a serious drinking problem. She was 23 years old and had a physically taxing job working on the assembly line of a seat belt–manufacturing plant in Angus, Ont. She came from an East Coast family and had always drunk heavily—by her own account, she’d been a binge drinker since age 18.

Every weekend started the same way. She’d drop her son off at her mother-in-law’s house and drive to the liquor store to get a bottle of rye and a case of beer. The weekends passed in a fog. She would arrive, hungover and weary, on her mother-in-law’s doorstep to pick up her son on Monday nights.

After nearly a decade of binge drinking, Rai quit cold turkey in 1979. But she’s been paying the health costs for nearly four decades. She suffered from anxiety and depression into her 40s. And, like many people who drink dangerously, Rai developed type 2 diabetes, which the 67-year-old will live with for the rest of her life.

According to global health guidelines, to qualify as a binge drinker, a man has to imbibe five or more drinks over a couple of hours and a woman four or more. If that sounds high, consider that two pints of beer put a female drinker just under that threshold.

And though the perception has long been that binge drinking is a pattern raucous twentysomethings develop before they grow out of it, research shows that this is not the case. According to Statistics Canada data from 2016, nearly six million Canadians are binge drinking at least once a month. The largest percentage of these people are within the ages of 18 and 34 (34 per cent of male heavy drinkers and 23 per cent of females), but 27 per cent of men who report binge drinking are 35 to 49 and 13 per cent of women who report are 50 to 64.

While binge drinking and alcoholism can overlap, the two are not the same. Binge drinking is defined as a period when, at least once a month, someone’s blood-alcohol level reaches .08 per cent. And while excessive drinking can lead to addiction, alcoholism is a medical condition with a physical dependence on the substance and without a set number of drinks.

“Excessive drinking is one of the biggest health problems we have in this country,” says Jürgen Rehm, the senior director for the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). “If you want to die prematurely, continue binge drinking.”

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