Dr. John Ross, former head of the Emergency department at the QE II hospital in Halifax, and more recently the provincial government’s architect of changes to the emergency room protocols in rural Nova Scotia hospitals, recently penned an opinion piece for the April 26, 2014 Halifax Chronicle Herald titled “Big Booze’s bribes a Faustian bargain”. In fairness to Dr. Ross, he may not have written that headline.
That’s not to say that Dr. Ross isn’t capable of turning a phrase or two of his own. The title of this entry is found within his piece, so I can only presume he is responsible for that, along with the rest of the item. Now, I’ve been in a meeting or two with Dr. Ross, and I know that he surely means well. He is a very dedicated, devoted man. But he seems to sometimes have a proclivity to overstate things, and reading his piece, I was motivated to make my first entry here to rebut a few of the more outlandish statements he has made.
Dr. Ross, with all due respect, much of what you have written is the same tired litany that many of your colleagues have been saying for the last few years as part of their orchestrated attack on the industry. The facts cited are often distorted if not outright misleading, whether intentionally so or not. My favorite not-a-stat is the oft-repeated line that the average Nova Scotian youth takes his or her first drink at 12.9 years of age. When you look behind those numbers, the calculation conveniently leaves out nearly 30 percent of the respondents, because they HAD NEVER HAD A DRINK, ever. Statistics Canada reports an average age of first drink at age 16, which is still too young, but a far different picture than the numbers from our provincial public health people would suggest. Dr. Ross’ item continues the story that many within the Nova Scotia public health community have been propagating for the last few years in their attempt to convince the public that Nova Scotia is awash in a sea of drunken louts and that the heavy hand of government action needs to be used to save us from our irresistible urge to drink ourselves to death, thanks to an out-of-control industry that markets its products irresponsibly to a hapless public.
When you look at the facts, you see a different picture. Nova Scotia consumes alcohol at a level that is in the lower 50 percent of all Canadian jurisdictions – either 6th or 8th in the country, depending on whether you look at overall volumes sold or adjust it to show absolute alcohol volumes. Volumes sold by the NSLC have declined for 5 consecutive years. “Big Alcohol” (a new name is badly needed for your foes, BTW – “Big Tobacco” was sort of a catchy title for a pretty despicable bunch, but this style is really getting tired now) is the enemy you and your colleagues so often speak of, as you have in this piece. In Nova Scotia, this is represented largely by a vibrant and thriving local wine and craft brewing industry, owned mostly by entrepreneurs and small businesses, none of whom have any desire to or intention of marketing their products to underage residents or selling massive volumes regardless of the consequences. They are just interested in making good products that people enjoy, and making a living by employing people to make a product that their customers want to buy. They are not doing subliminal advertising or product placements in movies to convince kids to somehow buy their product.
Moderate use of alcohol is a choice made by the majority of residents of this province. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with choosing not to partake. Somewhere around 20% of the population does not drink. That’s fine. Of the rest, the majority consume the product responsibly and without any particular problem. Unlike tobacco, there is considerable evidence that moderate use of alcohol can actually be beneficial to a person’s health. I’m not a medical man, so I make no claim of expertise in that area. I just know what I have read. Given all that, it is difficult to understand why the anti-alcohol activists in this province continue to equate their battle against alcohol with the same tactics and strategies they used against tobacco. There was even a conference in Truro a couple of years ago, paid for by tax dollars one presumes, on this very subject. I shouldn’t need to spell this out, but I will. Alcohol is not tobacco. The problems caused by their respective use by the population are very different.
There seems to be a belief among many in the anti-alcohol movement – despite most of the articles on the subject containing the disclaimer that the author is not a Prohibitionist, and indeed has an occasional drink him-or-herself, as Dr. Ross does here – that there is something morally wrong with the product or those who make and sell it. To those in the industry, that suggestion is offensive. Alcohol has been a part of human existence for thousands of years. Equally offensive is the suggestion made in his piece that the industry and its advertising is insidious (defined variously as to entrap, to be treacherous, to be deceitful) and that it tries to sell “kiddie drinks”, presumably to kids. From having worked in the industry at a senior level, I can state with some degree of confidence that nothing of the sort is true. To call for broad advertising restrictions or other limitations on the ability of both national suppliers and our local producers to sponsor events or advertise these products to those who are legally entitled to purchase them is simply wrong. The advocates for action may not be Prohibitionists, but they do seem to be calling for a kind of Neo-Prohibition like we are seeing with tobacco, by gradually strangling the ability of the industry to sell its products. It may be appropriate for tobacco. It is not, for alcohol, under our system of control.
The anti-alcohol activists are attempting to convince governments to employ population-wide sledgehammer measures to deal with a very targeted problem – the minority of consumers who abuse the product. There are some of those, and any number is too many. But why penalize the majority who use the product without any issue, and the people who produce and sell it to them? It is not too dissimilar to say that because people sometimes are injured or die because of automobile accidents, we should ban advertising and promotion by Big Auto (ugh, sorry), or not show auto racing on television. In both cases, it is the young and inexperienced who make up a disproportionate percentage of those harmed. There are many ways to address that problem, through targeted, specific measures that make sense. Broad bans do not.
To keep the automobile analogy going, I sometimes think that letting people who work in a clinical or enforcement setting make recommendations about broad public policy issues is a bit like asking someone who lives and works in a wrecking yard which manufacturer makes the best cars. When all you see are the failures and the wrecks, you are going to have a very skewed view of reality. Taking away fundamental freedoms in the name of saving us from ourselves, when the vast majority have no need to be saved, seems a poor public policy decision.
I could go on, but that’s enough for now. I have a lot more I can offer on this subject if anyone is interested, since I have been working in this area for the last few years prior to my retirement and have done considerable research in the area. If anyone wants to read more, leave a comment.
Thanks for reading.