Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction


Alcohol is the most commonly used substance in Canada. It causes more substance use related costs than either tobacco or all other drugs combined. Understanding the impacts of alcohol use is essential to minimizing the risks and harms. The research section summarizes the current evidence on the health impacts of alcohol, the costs of alcohol use and peoples’ perceptions of alcohol.

Health Impacts of Alcohol

Health Impacts of Alcohol

Alcohol carries a special social and cultural significance in Canada. It is also the most commonly used substance. While drinking is a personal choice, those that do choose to consume alcohol might not be aware of all the short- and long-term health risks. Drinking beyond one’s limits can result in confusion, loss of coordination, chronic illness and impact to the brain.

Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines

Drinking in moderation is key for reducing the long-term health risks associated with alcohol. To increase awareness and start public discussions about drinking in moderation, a set of national low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines was established. The guidelines are intended for individuals aged 25 to 65 who choose to drink. They also provide information on how to reduce the risk of alcohol-related harm. Some of the low-risk guidance includes:

  • Understanding when not to drink, such as when an individual needs to drive or is responsible for the care of others;
  • Setting a limit of 2 drinks per occasion for women, 3 drinks per occasion for men; and
  • Setting a limit of 10 drinks a week for women and 15 drinks a week for men;

Youth and Alcohol

Youth and Alcohol

Many youth experiment with alcohol. According to the Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey 2016-17, Canadian youth in grades 7-12 started drinking at age 13.4. The average age of first having five drinks or more at one time was 14.5 years. By grades 10-12, 64.5% of youth had used alcohol.

According to the Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines for Youth, young people may not be familiar with the effects of alcohol. This puts them at risk. Due to the stage of brain development, youth can also be more impulsive. Instead of drinking in moderation regularly, most young people occasionally binge drink, which can lead to bad decision-making such as driving while impaired by alcohol and, in some extreme cases, to emergency department visits.

Costs of Alcohol Use

Costs of Alcohol Use

According to the Alcohol Drug Summary, 78% of the general population (aged 15 and over) reported alcohol past-year use in 2017. Alcohol can result in numerous health impacts. It also contributes to the overall cost of substance use. The greatest impact is in lost productivity and healthcare costs. Other sectors impacted include criminal justice, business and industry, as well as research and prevention, damage to property and motor vehicles, and workplace costs. From 2007 to 2014, alcohol contributed:

  • $14.6 billion to the overall cost of substance use;
  • $5.9 billion to lost productivity;
  • $4.2 billion to healthcare; and
  • $3.2 billion to criminal justice

Canadian Perceptions and Trends

Canadian Perceptions and Trends

Demographic Trends for Alcohol Use

Canadian alcohol use has remained relatively stable since 2010. Past year use among the general population (aged 15 years and older) was 78% in 2017. While there is no difference in use rates between sexes (79% for males and 77% for females in 2017), increasing numbers of women are reporting past-year alcohol use (73% in 2015 compared to 77% in 2017). In addition, young adults (aged 20 to 24) are more likely to report past year use (83%) than youth aged 15 to 19 (57%) and adults aged 25 years and older (79%).

Post-secondary Student Perceptions on Alcohol

Students often have inaccurate perceptions about alcohol. According to Heavy Episodic Drinking Among Post Secondary Students, they often misjudge how much and how often others drink. Some also think that their friends approve of drinking. This can affect their drinking behaviour and lead them to drink more. Some students also mistake their drinking limits, which increases their risk of experiencing drinking-related harms.

Moreover, many students participate in pre-drinking which is drinking before going to a larger party or bar. This can result in negative consequences due to the uncontrolled environment and the excessive drinking that often takes place.

In general, these perceptions can play a role in how students view their drinking experiences. Some perceptions and experiences that post-secondary students noted about alcohol include:

  • Heavy episodic drinking is not a serious issue;
  • Drinking is a positive experience;
  • Drinking has minimal health or safety risks;
  • Having negative experiences, such as blackouts, injury, non-consensual sex and vomiting; and
  • Using alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety

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