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New West council and MLA support warning labels on alcohol containers

Toys have them, cigarettes have them, so why don’t alcohol containers have warning labels? New Westminster wants that changed
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New Westminster city council will write to the provincial and federal governments seeking its support for warning labels on alcohol containers.

The City of New Westminster wants warning labels to be placed on alcohol containers.

Council has approved a motion by Coun. Chuck Puchmayr to have the city write to the federal and provincial governments and ask them to introduce policies requiring warning labels on all alcohol containers. The motion, approved at the July 11 city council meeting, would also ask governments to expand educational efforts, to young and old, about the dangers attributed to the harmful use of alcohol.

Puchmayr’s motion states that more than three million deaths (5.3 per cent of all deaths) that occur globally each year are attributed to the harmful use of alcohol. For people aged 20 to 39 years of age, he said that rises to 13.5 per cent of deaths.

Dr. Eric Yoshida, a professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, a hepatologist at Vancouver General Hospital and a longtime member of the province’s liver transplant program, supports the city’s motion. He said a 2014 study conducted at the University of Victoria reported that 14,800 Canadians died directly or indirectly from alcohol, whether it was liver disease, traffic accidents, suicides, heart disease or cancer.

Yoshida said some of the patients he deals with who need a liver transplant “are absolutely shocked” to learn that alcohol can kill them, outside of a car accident. Some of those patients in need of life-saving transplants are only in their 20s or 30s.

“I think we just simply have to do more,” he said.

Yoshida said it’s “way overdue” for labelling to be required on alcohol containers.

“We live in a society where you can't buy toys without seeing a warning that there may be a choking hazard to young children under the age of three,” he said, adding some food products warn of the presence of nuts and peanuts. “Yet, nothing is done for alcohol. If you were a citizen, you could easily think that alcohol is actually not harmful to your health because the government doesn't put a label on it.”

Yoshida said labelling and education about the dangers of smoking have resulted in a drastic decline in the percent of Canadians who smoke.

“This is not targeting social drinking.”

Queensborough-Richmond MLA Aman Singh supported the motion, citing some of the “massive social costs” he’s personally seen. During his pre-political career as a lawyer, he said estimates nine of 10 cases he dealt with as a criminal defence lawyer were somehow connected to alcohol or drugs.

Singh, a recovering alcoholic, was recently deemed to be cancer free, after being treated for colon cancer. Noting that alcohol has been deemed to be a carcinogen, he said he has almost no doubt his cancer was likely caused by years and years of drinking.

“We are not targeting drinking,” he stressed. “This is not targeting social drinking.”

Singh said he doesn’t think people are aware of the detrimental health effects of binge drinking. He believes it’s appropriate to put labels on alcohol bottles warning of the negative health impacts

“As we've seen with cigarettes, it takes time. But those messages do work,” he said. “And you know, that there may there may be some initial loss of revenue, but that’s far more than made up in the savings of health costs.”

Puchmayr said many people can drink moderately and not have the ill health effects related to alcohol.

“A nice glass of wine once in a while, a good local brew – those are those are fine; it's the harmful use, the excessive use, the real abuse of alcohol is what is at issue here. And therefore the resolution is to get governments to become front and centre with that and put those warnings on those products.”

According to the motion approved by council, the economic burden of alcohol in Canada stands at $16 billion a year from health-care costs, lost productivity costs, criminal justice and social services providers.

Singh said he’d also like to see requirements for liquor retailers to display posters and provide leaflets about some of the risks of alcohol, something he plans to take up at the provincial level.

Mayor Jonathan Cote said the city would welcome Singh’s efforts to champion the issue at the provincial and federal level.

Puchmayr underwent a life-saving liver transplant in 2009 at VGH, where he Yoshida was part of his transplant team. While his liver failure was not deemed to be alcohol related, he said Yoshida’s experiences in dealing with people whose lives are at risk because of alcohol have convinced him of the need for labelling.

“Once their livers are failing and they're in the hospital there, they are shocked to hear that drinking alcohol in large quantities is harmful to them. And so there really is a need,” he said. “We have it in tobacco. We have it in peanuts. We have it in many other commodities. And yet something that can be as dangerous as alcohol, it's not there.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus

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