A letter signed by a trio of top medical health officers raises what it calls “significant public health concerns” about allowing alcohol in public parks, while also acknowledging other perspectives as the province continues to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These points appear in a letter to Saanich council signed by Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer for Island Health, as well as medical officers Murray Fyfe and Dee Hoyano. The trio penned the letter as councillors in that community first considered, then rejected plans to liberalize alcohol consumption in 14 public parks.
The letter looms large as other communities consider comparable plans, including Central Saanich.
The letter does not express outright opposition to liberalization. Instead, it speaks of “significant public health concerns” while recognizing “that the current circumstances regarding use of public space, responsible socialization, social isolation, and liquor consumption among Canadians have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
While it states it is “reasonable to re-examine these things in the public interest,” the letter emphasizes five assumptions, including “any net increase in access to and availability of alcohol will negatively affect both the short and long term health” of residents, followed by the observation that the “most effective and proven ways to decrease alcohol consumption are to reduce the number, density and operating hours of establishments selling alcohol on site and off site and increase the price per unit of alcohol.”
The letter also notes “a culture of moderation” in alcohol consumption cannot be easily imported, that enforcement only works if a real risk of being caught in violation exists and that local governments (along with regional health authorities) bear an undue burden of the negative health effects of problematic drinking.
The letter also points to evidence that 25 per cent of Canadians aged 35 to 54 are drinking more due to the pandemic, citing reasons such as a lack of regular schedule, stress, and boredom.
The letter notes alcohol remains the “most common reason for admission to hospital in Island Health for a substance dependency” in lamenting its long-term trajectory towards liberalization in British Columbia.
The letter also acknowledges evidence that shows the majority of Canadians (54 per cent) feel COVID-19 related physical distancing measures have increased their feelings of loneliness and isolation.
“Given the recent data demonstrating increased social isolation, loneliness, and alcohol consumption due to COVID-19 social distancing measures, we strongly support increasing the public’s access to parks and public spaces to promote mental and physical health,” it reads. “Expanding patio service for restaurants and cafes, with the explicit aim of spacing out seating for table service overall is also supported.”
The letter also acknowledges “there are a number of perspectives to consider regarding alcohol policy, with many members of the public and business community in favour of increased liberalization,” a statement that also draws attention to the liberalization efforts that existed before the pandemic.
This said, the letter warns against promoting and relying on alcohol as a social lubricant to grease communal well-being during a pandemic against the backdrop of “the long-term trend towards liberalization of liquor access in the province, and the well-known risks associated with this increased access.”
Central Saanich council is set to consider the issue on July 13.
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