Canada’s new Food Guide, Alcohol and FASD

I wish that would have been the headline recently as Health Canada unveiled an updated Food Guide. But there is reason to be optimistic. The risks of alcohol consumption were outlined. And although Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder was not mentioned, the mere fact that alcohol was, is reason enough to celebrate a small victory.

Canada’s New Food Guide had this to say:

There are health risks associated with alcohol consumption.

Alcoholic beverages can contribute a lot of calories to the diet with little to no nutritive value.

Further, the substantial disease burden attributed to alcohol intake is a leading global health concern. There are well-established health risks associated with long-term alcohol consumption, including increased risk of many types of cancer—liver, oesophageal, mouth, pharynx, larynx, colorectal, and breast (post-menopausal)— and other serious health conditions (such as hypertension and liver disease).

Non-fatal health and social problems are also associated with drinking alcohol. The economic costs of alcohol-related harm in Canada are estimated to be more than $14 billion, with about $3.3 billion directly related to health care costs. In 2016, there were at least 3,100 deaths related to alcohol in Canada. In the same year, about 77,000 hospitalizations in Canada were due to conditions entirely caused by alcohol.

People who do not consume alcohol should not be encouraged to start drinking. If alcohol is consumed, Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines can be used to provide information on how to reduce the risk of alcohol-related harms in both the short and long term.

So what are we to do?

Many in the FASD world in Ontario and Canada want an alcohol strategy.

According to an article in the Globe and Mail, written by Cassandra Szklarski, the “tough stance” on alcohol taken by the food guide, caught some nutrition and addiction experts by surprise. (But like those in the FASD world), these experts recognize a need for a co-ordinated strategy (and FASD which is often forgotten, needs to be at that table).

Issues around alcohol are tricky to tackle without an overarching regulatory body that can address a myriad of issues, adds Catherine Paradis, the leading expert on alcohol at the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

Unlike tobacco, vaping and cannabis, Canada has no alcohol act, making it “very challenging” to launch a comprehensive strategy on things including health, pricing, advertising, and labelling, says Paradis, whose agency was set up by Parliament to counsel decision-makers.

There’s a little bit of regulation within the Food and Drugs Act, there’s a little bit of regulation within the Excise Tax (Act) but we do not have an alcohol act. If we had one, in the future, it would be easier to address all alcohol-related issues at the same time, including the necessity for Canadians to be well-informed,” she says from Sherbrooke, Que.

“Within the general population alcohol literacy is extremely low – there is very little knowledge about Canada’s low-risk drinking guidelines and even less about the fact that alcohol causes several chronic diseases, including seven types of cancer.”

She adds that alcohol is the only food product that does not have nutrition information on its containers and the only legal psychoactive product that does not need to be labelled with mandatory health warnings.

Why is FASD ignored?

  • FASD is the leading cause of developmental disabilities.
  • With a 4% prevalence rate, there are 1,485,158 adults with FASD in Canada.
  • FASD costs in Canada are $9.8 billion.
  • FASD is 2.5 x more common than Autism. Yet services and support are virtually non-existent.

FASD is more common than autism

Liquor is Big Business

According to the 2017-2018 Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), 2.12 billion dollars in dividends were transferred to the Ontario Government.

Did any of that support Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder research, prevention, diagnostic clinics, services or supports for caregivers or people with FASD?

The LCBO supports causes to the tune of almost $10 million! But FASD isn’t listed.

Some highlights from the LCBO 2017-2018 Annual Report

  • 2,332 retail outlets selling alcoholic beverages in Ontario, up 23% since 2014
  • Total number of LCBO stores: 663
  • 247 Grocery stores
  • 210 Agency stores
  • More than 26,000 spirits, wine and beer products
  • 5,000+ products available on the LCBO mobile app
  • 3,000 online exclusives
  • E-Commerce sales doubled
  • Next-day delivery introduced
  • Extended Sunday hours
  • New in-app browsing and shopping
  • 360 grocery authorizations awarded
  • Record-breaking donations:
    • $4.1 million to the United Way
    • $3.5 million to Ontario’s Regional Children’s Hospitals
    • $2.3 million to MADD Canada

The LCBO reinvigorated its commitment to your local community through our continued social responsibility efforts and donations to important charitable causes that enhance and protect the lives of millions of Ontarians. With your help, we raised over $2.3 million for MADD Canada to support programs that reach high school and elementary students across the province, helping them make smart choices that keep themselves and their friends safe from impaired driving. An incredible $3.5 million was also raised to help improve the lives of thousands of children who rely on health care professionals at Ontario’s four children’s hospitals for specialized treatment, therapy and services. We raised $4.1 million for the United Way, along with $1.1 million through local and provincial donation boxes programs to contribute to local charitable causes in Ontario communities.

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There are many groups working locally to make change in their own communities. Some are making a difference. But the skills, availability, awareness and support varies across provinces and countries. We need a coordinated effort. We need a provincial or national champion to step forward and take a leadership role. We have had a few over the years – but the nation’s love affair with alcohol and the big business of alcohol likely prevents headway.

In Ontario we have Sandy’s Law

Sandy’s Law, Bill 43, is an amendment to the Liquor Licence Act. It is a private member’s bill that was introduced by MPP Ernie Parsons of Prince Edward – Hastings County (Ontario), and was inspired by his late son, Sandy, who had Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

FASD Provincial Warning

Sandy’s Law requires signs displayed in Ontario.

All establishments in Ontario that serve or sell liquor are required to display signs letting women know that consuming alcohol while pregnant can cause FASD. And while it doesn’t address addiction, poverty, violence and other issues such as lack of awareness among health care practitioners, that contribute to drinking during pregnancy, in Ontario it is another concrete effort you could undertake to ensure establishments are in compliance.

In the picture below, a friend and fellow FASD advocate noticed the restaurant we were in, after participating in a FASDay walk, did not have a Sandy’s Law sign posted.

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What are the warning sign requirements?

The warning sign must be at least 8 by 10 inches in size. It must be prominently displayed in all locations where alcohol is sold or where customers brew their own wine or beer for take home consumption. The sign can be displayed in color or black and white.

What is the penalty if a licensed establishment does not post the warning sign?

Failure to comply with the signage requirements is an offence under the Liquor Licence Act, with a maximum penalty of a $250,000 fine for a corporation, or a $100,000 fine and/or imprisonment for up to one year for an individual.

How do licensed establishments get the warning sign?

Establishments will be expected to print their own signs, which can be viewed and printed here.

For questions, contact the Alcohol and Gaming Commission at 1-800-522-2876.

So what can we do? I wish I had an answer.

Until we reach the tipping point:

  • Write or meet with your political leaders (MPPs in Ontario and federally MPs in Canada) and ask them what their strategy is for alcohol and FASD.
  • Write to your Minister of Health. In Canada, ask The Honourable Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Minister of Health to include FASD in the next Food Guide.
  • In Ontario, write to the Chair of the LCBO Board of Directors (currently Ed Clark) or President & CEO George Soleas and ask them to support FASD.
  • Comment on news articles about FASD or when FASD is excluded.
  • Write Letters to the Editor or Opinion Pieces.
  • Follow FASD sites, and share information on Social Media.
  • You can follow Our Sacred Breath on Facebook (@allaboutfasd) where information is shared from a variety of sources.

If you have any ideas, feel free to leave a comment below. All we need is something to take hold – to reach the tipping point. It’s been long enough. It’s time for the spotlight to be shone on FASD – in a way that respects and honours women and people with FASD, but provides the support necessary to and for them.

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