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Binge drinking on the rise in B.C., health officer says

Binge drinking is trending upward in British Columbia, says a report by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

Binge drinking is trending upward in British Columbia, says a report by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“It is concerning because it’s younger people that we’re seeing with binge drinking, particularly young women and, of course, that’s the reproductive age and we know the important impacts alcohol can have,” Henry said.

Her report, Taking the Pulse of the Population: An Update on the Health of British Columbians, is based on performance measures toward seven goals for 2023. The data come from several sources, including Statistics Canada, B.C. Stats, the Health Ministry and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

The percentage of British Columbians 12 and older engaging in hazardous drinking increased to 16.5 per cent in 2013-14 from 15.8 per cent in 2009-10, the report says.

If that trend continues, the rate will be 18.6 per cent by 2023-24; the target for 2023 is 14 per cent.

“The percentage difference is quite small, but these are indicators … so markers that tell us something about an area of health,” Henry said. “That this indicator is going in the wrong direction tells us that this is something we need to pay attention to so that negative health impacts can be reduced.”

Hazardous drinking is defined as drinking five or more drinks on one occasion at least once a month. In 2013, that definition was changed to four or more drinks for females, changing the data slightly but not the trend.

Increased alcohol consumption and the opioid overdose crisis were two main areas of challenge identified in the report. The opioid crisis has affected people from all sectors of society, but young men make up nearly 80 per cent of overdose deaths in B.C.

Henry said she is writing a report related to the need for a safer supply of drugs, decriminalization and the need for more social supports for people struggling with addiction.

She would like to see minimum prices for alcohol, to help decrease the availability of low-cost, high-alcohol products.

“Those are the ones that people who have issues with alcohol — substance issues and alcoholism — are drawn to,” Henry said. She hopes to have a report out on this by the fall.

Because alcohol and cannabis are legal substances, Henry said she wants to recommend measures that encourage a lower-risk, responsible approach.

Overall, the report shows the health of many British Columbians is good and improving — the incidence of diabetes, mortality due to preventable causes, smoking during pregnancy and the incidence of hepatitis C are all decreasing.

“I’m really optimistic,” Henry said. “We have some of the best health in the world in this province. We have the third-highest life expectancy in the world after Japan and Switzerland,” she said. “And some of the things we are doing to address the reasons why we have issues are really positive as well — poverty-reduction strategies and addressing the effects of climate change.”

On the unhealthy side, consumption of fruit and vegetables has dropped, fewer people report experiencing positive mental health, and more youth are vulnerable in terms of their social and emotional development.

The report notes several gender-related and regional disparities. Men in B.C. are twice as likely as women to die of unintentional injuries or due to preventable causes, while women are less likely to be physically active.

The gap in life expectancy between regional health authorities is also widening. It’s highest in the Vancouver Coastal Health region (82.4 years for males and 86.4 years for females) and lowest in the Northern Health region (77.4 years for males, 81.9 years for females). Within the Island Health region, it is 80.2 years for males and 84.1 for females.

Henry’s report makes recommendations to the Ministry of Health, health authorities and partners, including:

• Targeted interventions that recognize sex- and gender-specific health needs, and support all gender identities and sexual orientations.

• Increased support for government programs and policies that focus on health among women, children, youth and families.

• Increased focus on illness and injury prevention and health promotion for people living in rural and remote areas.

• Further developing mechanisms to monitor air, water, soil and food supplies, as well as the health impacts of climate change.

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