Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Alcohol Paradox

You may have heard that Prince Albert was the only municipality in Saskatchewan that did not take advantage of the offer from the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Commission to allow bars to open at 6 a.m. today for the Olympic gold medal hockey game.  Council didn't actually make that decision; the opportunity came far too late in the week for council to have the opportunity to discuss it, so it was more a matter of not making a decision, rather than making the decision not to allow it.  But if it had come to council, I don't think that I would have supported it.

Don't get me wrong.  I drink alcohol.  I enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner most evenings, I enjoy trying new types of wine, and I make my own wine, although I use kits, rather than making wine from real grapes or other fruit.  In the summer, drinking a cold beer on the deck is one of the joys of life.

On the other hand, I know the damage that alcohol can do.  Both Andrea and I know the pain of having alcoholics within the family, and the helpless feeling that it brings.

And I have recently been to meetings where community groups have discussed the need to develop an alcohol strategy for Prince Albert.   The statistics provided at these meetings are startling, and scary.  The amount spent annually per capita on alcohol in Prince Albert is $1,249, more than $400 more than the per capita rate in Saskatoon, and more than $500 more per capita than Moose Jaw and the provincial average.  More than $2 million of the police budget between 2009 and 2012 was spent on dealing with public intoxication.

Some of the statistics related to youth drinking are equally scary - more than two-thirds of Grade 10 students reported binge drinking - the national average is less than half.

And there are more alarming statistics related to drunk driving, violent crime, and social services.

So we have a problem that costs tax-payers big money, reduces the time that police have to deal with other issues, and has devastating effects on families.  The effects are felt across all income levels, as tempting as it is to assume that it is a problem that only belongs to certain segments of society.

I don't know what the solution is.  Part of the difficulty in coming up with such a strategy is the paradox of alcohol - for some people, and at a certain level of use, alcohol is merely a pleasant diversion in life.  But for some, after a certain point, it brings only grief.  And that grief doesn't stop at the individual - think of the innocent victims of drunk drivers.

Having these discussions about the problem is a good step.  Recognizing the broad range of related problems, while it doesn't make finding solutions any easier, at least shows us that the strategy will have to be multi-faceted.

Part of the solution has to be recognizing that perhaps, how we look at alcohol use has to change.  So many of our celebrations include alcohol as an integral part of things - just look at the different approaches high schools use in their graduation celebrations.

I look at opening bars to watch the gold medal game in the same way.  Why does watching a hockey game require drinking at 6 a.m.?  It doesn't, of course, judging by the quiet celebrating that Guthrie and a few of his friends had in our TV room this morning.  But I know that there are those who will argue that this was an exceptional event, so it should have been allowed, since it wasn't forcing people to drink, but providing them with the opportunity to gather together to celebrate.

But I think that, in a city which has finally acknowledged that we need to act as a community to look at the broader problem of how we deal with alcohol, allowing bars to open would be sending a message that we don't take the problem seriously - and we have to start matching what we do with what we say.

"Alcohol gives you infinite patience with stupidity." - Sammy Davis Jr.

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