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June 05, 2014

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How much do Canadians lowball their drinking

How much do we lowball the consumption of alcohol, our favourite recreational drug? A lot, as it turns out. It’s common knowledge that most of us downplay how much we drink in a given year. The World Health Organization already compensates for this by adding as much as 30 per cent to self-reported statistics on alcohol consumption. But even this is too low.

A new study published in the journal Addiction by the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research (CARBC) shows that people under-report their alcohol consumption in national health surveys by 50 to 75 per cent, depending on age and beverage.

Why does this matter? Surveys of alcohol consumption are a crucial part of provincial, national and international estimates of the burden of disease and injury caused by alcohol. Dr. Tim Stockwell, CARBC’s director and lead author of the study, says that when we create policy based on a gross underestimation of alcohol consumption, it’s easier for society to sweep many of the associated risks under the carpet. “Bringing more accurate data to the table means a whole raft of effective policy measures need to be considered more seriously. The urgency is greater,” he says.

National sales figures show that for every Canadian over the age of 15, an amount of alcohol equal to 480 bottles of beer, 91 bottles of wine or 27 bottles of spirits is sold. But when traditional surveys asked how much respondents drank in the past year, numbers came nowhere near this amount. When, in 2008-10, Health Canada Alcohol and Drug Use surveyors also asked another question—how much respondents drank the day before their phone interview—they got a very different set of numbers.

To get a more accurate picture of what was being consumed, and by whom, CARBC researchers combined the two different responses and compared it with national sales data. One of the major findings: “Low-risk” drinkers and those under 24 years of age were underestimating their consumption the most—by as much as 75 per cent. This study describes a new method to correct for these large underestimates about how much we drink and the related costs.

Highlights of the report can be found in this infographic (pdf).

For the full report, email your request to: carbc@uvic.ca

To read the abstract of the report “Who under-reports their alcohol consumption in telephone surveys and by how much? An application of the Yesterday Method in a national Canadian substance use survey”: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/add.12609/abstract

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  Media Contacts:

Tim Stockwell (Centre for Addictions Research) at 250-472-5445, (cell) 250-415-7376 or timstock@uvic.ca
Suzanne Ahearne (University Communications + Marketing) at 250-721-6139 or sahearne@uvic.ca

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