Study recommends free booze for homeless alcoholics
VANCOUVER - Alcohol is the cheapest drug in B.C., says a report released Thursday by the Centre for Addictions Research, which recommends a hike in liquor prices to reduce illness and injuries.
At the same time, researchers at centre at the University of Victoria recommend setting up a type of safe-drinking program offering free alcohol to homeless alcoholics to reduce their use of hazardous sources such as rubbing alcohol or mouthwash.
It can cost as little as 58 cents for a single-serving drink in B.C. liquor stores, meaning it costs as little as $2.32 for an average woman to exceed national guidelines for daily consumption and as little as $2.80 for an average man, said the report. The report authors looked at the price of every one of the 5,506 products on liquor store shelves in the province and the price of a standard drink ranged from 58 cents to $994.
"There's quite a lot of very cheap drinks out there," said lead researcher Tim Stockwell.
He said raising the price to a $1.50 minimum could have a major impact on everything from hospital visits and traffic accidents, to venereal disease.
"I know it's not a very popular thing to say, but it's said in the interests of public health and safety," he added.
The study said the lowest prices for wines, beers and ciders in B.C. are much lower than in Saskatchewan and Ontario.
Researchers compared the price of alcohol in the province with six widely used illegal drugs including marijuana, cocaine and heroin.
While the median price for a single dose of marijuana was lower at $1.87, the cheapest high could still be found at the liquor store.
Stockwell said there is plenty of evidence around the world to show that when the price of alcohol goes up, the negative consequences go down. He said there's also evidence that heavier drinkers often use cheaper alcohol.
Canada is one of the few countries in the world to set minimum prices for liquor, and Stockwell said B.C. raises the price regularly for spirits but beer, wine and coolers are often left alone.
He agreed there's a concern that by raising the price of alcohol those who can't afford it may go to the less expensive, and far more damaging, rubbing alcohol, antifreeze and mouthwash to drink.
That's why the study also recommend a controlled access program that gives free alcohol to homeless alcoholics.
"These are ghastly things, they're terrible things for their bodies," he said of the non-beverage alcohol. "If you're addicted and you're getting withdrawal symptoms ... people will get desperate and they'll do desperate things."
Programs in Ontario have had "spectacular results" for the health of the alcohol-addicted homeless and the community at large by doling out small amounts of alcohol every few hours to these addicts, said Stockwell.
Those programs stabilize a person, they drink less alcohol, have better health, fewer involvements with the police and spend less time in jail, he said.
"It's kind of saving money. I know people think this is crazy, spending taxpayers money giving alcohol to this population, but we do it for methadone, for heroin addicts, why not for alcohol addicts?"
In a unanimous resolution earlier this year, every B.C. municipality supported the idea of raising the minimum price of alcohol at the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention held in Whistler, B.C.
Stockwell said their research included alcohol with six other illegal drugs because they are all drugs, and he felt the outcomes needed to be compared.
"There are many more deaths caused by alcohol, many more hospital admissions caused by alcohol," he said. "I do think we compartmentalize (alcohol) and forget how serious an issue it is."
While the lead researcher in the study was done at the centre, it also had contributions from experts across Canada, the United States and Australia.