Debate continues about labelling alcoholism a disease

COSTS OF ALCOHOL: Alcoholism as disease up for debate but no denying society pays heavy price

  • May. 20, 2011 6:00 p.m.

On April 1, British Columbia became the first jurisdiction in Canada to recognize and treat alcoholism as a chronic disease.

It’s a significant milestone as it profoundly affects how the province tries to deal with the heavy costs alcohol places on health, law enforcement and workplace absenteeism. A report by provincial health officer Perry Kendall estimates booze’s financial burden on taxpayers was $2.2 billion in 2008.

In the last 10 years, the Ministry of Health has increased its mental health and addictions budget 52 per cent, to $1.3 billion, recognizing that “problem drinking” places a major burden on the system.

In 2009, 1,755 people in B.C. died from alcohol-related causes. Approximately 21,000 people are hospitalized each year for reasons related to drinking, compared to 24,000 for tobacco. The trend, however, shows tobacco-related hospitalizations are declining and those resulting from alcohol are on the rise.

Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research B.C., a world leader in drug and alcohol research based out of the University of Victoria, says it won’t be long before alcohol overtakes tobacco.

“A recent study has suggested that we’ve hugely underestimated the number of cancer deaths caused by drinking,” Stockwell says.

Based on the new findings, Stockwell estimates another 7,000 people in Canada die annually from cancer related to drinking, for an average death toll of approximately 12,000 Canadians annually.

Whether or not these costs are a result of diagnosable disease remains an ongoing debate and a loaded question that Stockwell is wary of answering.

“At some point, you might label somebody as having a disease and if that helps get them treatment, fine,” Stockwell says. “I think it’s a great simplification.”

The term didn’t fit for Michael Walsh, who was living a sober life, following recovery from a cocaine addiction and alcohol abuse, but still harbouring the negativity associated with labelling himself an alcoholic. Seeing a lack of support options available in Greater Victoria, Walsh founded the Canadian branch of LifeRing, a peer-support addiction recovery group based on the principles of sobriety, secularity and self-help.

“I’m Michael and I’m more than someone who has struggled with addiction and abuse,” says Walsh, executive director LifeRing Secular Recovery (Society Canada), a registered charity that has nine groups that meet regularly in the Capital Region. “I had to shake that.”

Some of the beliefs imparted on Walsh early in his recovery – being told that  alcohol abuse was a disease, that it was hereditary and that the only support was through Alcoholics Anonymous – only complicated the process for him and are not a part of the LifeRing platform, (although members are encouraged to use any additional support systems they find personally helpful).

For Stockwell, the most appropriate way of looking at the problem is to say there’s “a continuum of dependence severity” that includes anyone who uses substances. As far as alcoholism being hereditary, there are genetic components to almost everything a person does and thinks – substance use is no different.

Twenty-five years of using drugs and drinking fractured relationships in Walsh’s life. Those haven’t yet been repaired after years of sobriety and he continues to attend meetings periodically as he steers the organization.

“Part of what we encourage people to do is open up,” Walsh says. “There’s more to life than recovery. Anything’s possible.”

More information on LifeRing can be found at Liferingcanada.org or by calling 1-888-920-2095. Contact Alcoholics Anonymous at 1-800-883-3968 or AAvictoria.ca.

nnorth@saanichnews.com

Study links drinking to living longer

Drinking is a favourite pastime of many, but research is starting to show that it might also increase lifespan.

A controversial 20-year study on middle-aged and elderly people released last August by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found those who drank moderately lived longer than those who abstained completely.

The study included a baseline of 1,824 55- to 65-year-olds and took into consideration current and past drinking habits as well as age and gender.

Researchers concluded that non-drinkers ran more than twice the risk of dying compared to moderate drinkers. Complete abstainers were at the highest risk, even more than heavy drinkers, with the chances of being dead at 51 and 45 per cent, respectively.

Part of our series on alcohol use in Greater Victoria

LOWDOWN ON LIQUOR: A sip-by-sip breakdown of how drinking affects your body

CULTURE OF DRINKING: Why smart people drink more and stay up later

COSTS OF ALCOHOL: Debate continues about whether alcoholism is a disease, but there’s no question that society bears a heavy price

UNBORN’S UNFAIR BURDEN: Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and the people devoted to understanding the invisible, pervasive condition caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.

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