Sunday, April 17, 2016

What's Missing in the Alcohol Strategy

After a couple of years of meetings, the alcohol strategy was released this past week.  Unfortunately, it's missing a rather crucial part - the strategy part.

You see, a strategy isn't just a list of every idea that came up during a brainstorming session.  I understand the value of brainstorming - of getting out ideas without being too concerned as to the practicality of such ideas.  But a strategy sets priorities for action, and recognizes that it isn't a single problem, but there are separate facets that may require different actions.  A strategy should set targets as well, otherwise there is no way to assess its success or lack of same.

It is a discussion document that includes some interesting statistics with regard to the cost of public intoxication, the proportion of high school students with binge-drinking experience, and the average amount of money that Prince Albert residents spend on alcohol compared to other communities in the province.  In all of these areas, Prince Albert scores considerably higher than elsewhere, and figuring out why is difficult.

And of course, part of the problem is that alcohol in and of itself is not the problem.  A glass or two of wine with dinner or a beer enjoyed on the deck on a hot summer afternoon is not a problem.  The problem is the misuse of alcohol, sometimes in a way that negatively affects others (public intoxication, drunk driving), and sometimes in the impact on individuals, and how it may affect them and their future relationship with alcohol.  A high school kid who binge drinks is probably going to suffer the most from his or her foolishness (as long as they don't get behind the wheel of a vehicle), but if that's seen to be the normal way of drinking, it's likely to lead to more serious problems in the future.  And of course, there are those individuals for whom a single drink is too much.

Also missing is an assessment of how some of our current initiatives are working.  For example, much was made a few years back about the setting up of a detox centre, so that rather than taking people who were found drunk to the cells, they could be taken to detox.  But it's not clear if this is working as a true detox centre, or just as a place where people can sleep it off, and then are put back on the street without any further support.  A couple of months ago, someone passed out in one of the chairs in the atrium of the Forest Centre.  When the security guard came back from his rounds, he wasn't able to wake the guy up, so he called the police.  When the police arrived, one officer said "Oh, Darrell.  And  you just got out of detox yesterday."  Anecdotes like that tell me that the detox centre has provided another place for drunks to sleep, but it hasn't done anything to solve the problem of public intoxication.

And I'm surprised that, with all the concern about high rates of teenage drinking, nobody proposed that the practice of having a "safe" grad, where grads drink with parental approval, is sending the wrong message.  After all, if teens who were surveyed said that they would like to see events where alcohol isn't allowed, and that they would like to get away from the idea that alcohol is not necessary to have a good time, this would seem to be the perfect opportunity for schools to lead the way.  But it's almost as though there are some traditions that are considered sacred, and we don't want to examine too closely any possible connection between that sort of condoned activity and the acceptance of binge drinking in high schools.

The strategy needs to include both actions to prevent problems in the future, as well as actions to address current problems.  Some organization to set priorities and identify first steps would be a good next step for the committee.  And why the report bothers to list ideas that are not within the power of anyone in the city to implement (legalizing marijuana has nothing to do with alcohol) only distracts from any realistic recommendations that may be in the report.

I sympathize with the committee - I'm sure that they felt pressured to come up with something after being in existence for almost four years.  But rather than make an announcement about what is at best a preliminary discussion document, they might have better spent their time actually setting some priorities and recommendations for actions that could actually be implemented - narrowing the scope of a huge problem.  As they say, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time - and there's no doubt that alcohol misuse in our community is a huge elephant.

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." - Winston Churchill

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