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More adults drinking daily, smoking pot, study finds

Bartender pouring a drink


Daily alcohol consumption, marijuana smoking and psychological distress rates among adults are on the rise, potentially troubling trends that could have major health implications, a new report warns.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto released a survey Monday that found a growing number of Ontario adults are drinking alcohol every day, using cannabis and reporting symptoms associated with poor mental health.

The survey also found that a growing number of young people are drinking and driving, a serious concern that warrants attention, according to the report. While fewer than 8 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds reported driving within an hour of having two drinks in 2005, that rate rose to nearly 13 per cent in 2009.

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"We do see some concerning trends," said Robert Mann, senior scientist at CAMH.

One of the most troubling aspects of the report concerns alcohol use, Dr. Mann said. It found the number of adults who report drinking alcohol every day rose from 5.3 per cent in 2002 to more than 9 per cent in 2009. The average number of drinks consumed in a week also rose from 3 to 4.6 drinks.

Although having a drink every day is not necessarily a sign of a major problem, it does increase an individual's susceptibility to alcohol-related disease, Dr. Mann said. But the rising rates of alcohol consumption also likely means that people who were already moderate or heavy drinkers are consuming more alcohol than before.

"I think that it has been and continues to be a major public health problem," he said.

It's unclear why more people are drinking more often. It's possible that the economic downturn in 2009, when the survey was taken, drove more people to drink, Dr. Mann said.

Even so, in recent years there has been a growing tendency toward higher alcohol consumption in Canada and elsewhere around the world. The rise seen in the CAMH report could be part of that broader trend.

Despite the increasing number of daily drinkers and problem drinking habits, the issue has received scant attention in Canada, Dr. Mann said.

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"We seem not to recognize the dimensions of the problem because it gets lost in the fact [that]most of us really are moderate drinkers and consume alcohol moderately," he said. "The dialogue seems to be mainly about how we can make more money out of alcohol and how can we make it more accessible."

In Ontario, for instance, the provincial government is adopting new rules that will allow people to drink outside of beer tents at events and festivals, as well as allow alcohol to be served at weddings and events for one hour longer, until 2 a.m.

The province has said it will continue to enforce good behaviour and responsible drinking. But the lack of attention paid to problem drinking by governments and public health officials is worrisome, Dr. Mann said.

"There's really hardly any attention to the health consequences, which I find surprising."

The report also found troubling patterns when it comes to marijuana. The number of Ontario residents of all ages who report smoking marijuana increased from 8.7 in 1996 to 13.3 per cent in 2009.

The biggest increases were among adults. Among those aged 18 to 29, marijuana smoking rates doubled from about 18 per cent in 1996 to about 36 per cent in 2009.

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That's a concern because marijuana use is also associated with psychological problems and can increases risks to people who are predisposed to schizophrenia, the report said.

At the same time, nearly 15 per cent of Ontario adults report having symptoms linked to elevated psychological distress, while 6 per cent say they have poor mental health. Those between ages 30 and 39 were most likely to report mental health problems.

Dr. Mann said the heightened prevalence in that age group could be linked to the economic downturn, during which many lost their jobs or experienced financial problems.

Some positive notes contained in the report are that binge drinking among adults has dropped, with the most significant decrease seen among young adults. At the same time, the number of adult smokers in Ontario declined from about 20 per cent in 2008 to 18.6 per cent in 2009.

Overall, however, the trends are worrying and mean that more attention needs to be paid to issues related to mental health and substance use and abuse.

"I think the indicators that we have are telling us that [these trends]remain serious problems," Dr. Mann said, adding it suggests "these problems may be increased in the future."

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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