The Canadian Way of Drinking


Do you drink a glass of wine with dinner every night? That puts you in the top 30 percent of American adults in terms of per-capita alcohol consumption. If you drink two glasses, that would put you in the top 20 percent.

When I read that in the Washington Post, I went, yikes! I have a glass of wine with dinner many nights – three to five times a week.

The US figures show about 30% of Americans don’t drink at all, and another 30% have less than one glass per week. No wonder they’re so religious in the USA. Maybe they’d be less gun-crazy, too, if they had a beer  and relaxed a bit, instead of locking and loading all the time.

My drinking puts me up in the top 40% of alcohol consumption by their scale. At least by American standards, I drink a lot. A heavy drinker if you’re one of the 30% who abstain. But maybe not by Canadian standards.

A story on CTV last May, titled, “Canadians drinking more than the global average: WHO” noted that “…each person in the world over the age of 15 drinks 6.2 litres of pure alcohol every year.” However, it added, guys are even worse:

Canadian males aged 15 and older consumed 18.8 litres of pure alcohol in 2010, compared to 7.4 litres for women.

So Canadians consume about three times the global average of alcohol. It’s probably the long winters that drives us to it. Or the Harper government. Or Jian Ghomeshi. Or trying to understand how income splitting works. Or simply because it’s Tuesday and it’s been a long week already.

Okay, global means you’re counting Tibetan yak herders, Mongolian camel traders, Amazonian rain forest natives, several million Muslim and Buddhist teetotallers, monks, nuns, astronauts, prisoners,  and all sorts of people who for various reasons can’t or don’t drink. Because of this all-encompassing approach, I find the global statistics somewhat misleading. I would rather know the average consumption of those who do drink.

But apparently we Canadians are sly drinkers. We lowball the amount we consume, by as much as 75%. According to a piece in the Globe & Mail last June a study showed:

…people reported only about one-third of their consumption when the amounts were compared with how much alcohol was actually sold every year – 8.2 litres of pure alcohol a person aged 15 and over.
That amounts to 480 bottles of beer, 91 bottles of wine or 27 bottles of spirits, Prof. Stockwell said.
Canadians in the North are likely to drink an average of 13 litres or more, and residents in Eastern Canada drink the least compared to national figures – possibly because of the price of alcohol…

Ninety one bottles of wine? Ouch. My liver would be flopping like a landed fish! That’s 1.75 bottles a week on average. I guesstimate my consumption is under 1 bottle a week, But then if I’m like the rest of the survey, I probably lowball that. And that doesn’t take into account my tequila consumption which is about… well, less than a half-bottle a year, so I think I’m okay there.

The G&M article continued:

National low-risk guidelines in Canada recommend women have no more than two drinks a day, or 10 a week, and that men consume no more than three a day, or 15 drinks a week.

So I think I’m okay there, too. My consumption is closer to 5-7 glasses a week; half the amount they recommend I stay below (whew!). A glass of wine, by the way, is measured at 150 mL or about 5 oz: five glasses in a bottle. That’s a tad more per glass than we measure at home, which is more like 6-8 glasses per bottle.

Health Canada says that, unlike our American cousins, most of us drink:

In 2012, 78.4% of Canadians reported drinking alcohol in the past year, a rate similar to that reported in 2011 (78.0%). There was, however, a decrease in past-year alcohol use among youth 15 to 24 years of age compared to CAS in 2004, from 82.9% to 70.0% in 2012. Similar to previous years, in 2012, a higher percentage of males than females reported past-year alcohol use (82.7% versus 74.4%, respectively) while the prevalence of past-year drinking among adults aged 25 years and older (80.0%) was higher than among youth (70.0%).

I’m sure there’s some correlation between how much we drink and when, and what hockey teams we support or which political party is in power, but I haven’t done the research. Leafs fans probably consume the most all the time. Yet, surprisingly, we’re far from the world’s heaviest alcohol abusers. The CAMH study showed:

Drinkers in Europe and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa are the world’s heaviest consumers of alcohol, on average… People in Eastern Europe and Southern Sub-Saharan Africa consumed alcohol in the unhealthiest manner, as they frequently consumed large quantities, drank to intoxication, engaged in prolonged binges, and consumed alcohol mainly outside of meals.

Interesting, but too simplistic to really understand the implications or causes. What sort of alcohol do they consume? Is it high or low percentage? Is theirs a government-controlled system or free market? How much is their booze taxed? How are sales controlled? Whats’ the climate like? And so on. It’s not quite so simple as throwing out numbers about consumption. And maybe I’d drink more if I lived in a country that was a cog in the Soviet empire for decades, then was released to struggle in the capitalist world without a sustainable economy, let alone working infrastructure.

But the top drinkers in the US study are truly scary:

The tenth decile consumes 73.85 drinks per week. Yep. Over 73 drinks a week. That’s 10 drinks a day. Forget a glass or two of wine with dinner; you need to drink roughly two bottles of wine with dinner. Forget a couple of beers; you need to pound down close to a 12-pack of beer every day to qualify.

Two bottles of wine with dinner? I’m a cheap date. Really. If we go out for a meal and share a single bottle, I’m ready to sleep. And more than that, the next day I’m spending with Mr. Ibruprofen. I can’t knock our US neighbours too much, though: I suspect our own heavy drinkers are equally egregious consumers. All I can do is note that – thankfully – I’m not in the company of the top percentiles.

Although I have to admit that there are many good reasons not to drink, I’m of the age when I’d rather risk the negative effects from a glass of wine now and then than miss the beauty of a robust zinfandel. Or the suave smoothness of a glass of extra-anejo tequila. Or that wonderful summer evening on the porch with a glass of wine, a book and a lovely sunset.

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One comment

  1. abbottaerospace

    I was surprised to find when we went through the Canadian permanent residency and citizenship process a few years ago that we would be classified a having an alcohol problem if we reported having 2 glasses of wine a night.
    Moving here from Belgium this was a shock as you would be regarded as freakishly subnormal if you had any less than 2 glasses a night.
    Alcoholism is purely a matter of national culture.

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