Alcohol consumption is often considered a university tradition: Drinking is embedded in much of student social life, culture and events. However, Quebec Premier François Legault’s decision to deem the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) an essential service amid province-wide shut-downs to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is not about student life, but alcohol-dependent Quebecers. If liquor stores close, people with alcohol use disorder (AUD), would likely put additional strain on an already overburdened healthcare system. During the global pandemic, when hospital beds, medical resources, and time have become precious currency, it is essential that liquor stores remain open to minimize the number of people admitted to hospitals.
A survey conducted by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction found that three per cent of Canadians reported behaviour aligned with AUD in 2012 and that 18 percent of the general population exceeded Canada’s Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines (LRDG) in 2017. The LRDG recommends no more than 10 drinks a week for women, with no more than two drinks a day most days; and 15 drinks a week for men, with no more than three drinks a day most days. If SAQs across the province closed, many Quebec residents with alcohol dependencies would likely be forced into withdrawal.
The physical dependency that often accompanies AUD can make sudden withdrawal from alcohol a potentially fatal medical emergency. Many heavy drinkers are mentally and physically dependent on alcohol because, over time, their brain chemistry adjusts to compensate for alcohol latency in their system. Mild withdrawal symptoms can include shaking, sweating, vomiting, insomnia, anxiety, and headaches. Severe alcohol withdrawal can include hallucinations and seizures. The most severe and life-threatening symptom of withdrawal is called delirium tremens (DTs), a state in which the brain can have trouble regulating the body’s circulation or breathing, and which creates a risk of heart attack, stroke, and death.
Between 2015 and 2016, hospitalizations that were wholly caused by alcohol consumption and alcohol harm totalled roughly 77,000, compared with about 75,000 hospitalizations for heart attack in the same year. Further, hospitalizations for alcohol harm often cost more than other hospitalizations largely as a result of the longer lengths of stay: A person recovering from alcohol harm requires an average of 11 days in hospital, compared with 7 days for a typical in-patient stay. An influx of people requiring treatment for alcohol harm would be an unsustainable burden for the Canadian healthcare system amidst this pandemic.
While McGill’s two-week semester hiatus may have prompted more drinking among students due to the reduced academic strain, it is critical that students drink responsibly to avoid any risk of hospitalization. It is also important to recognize that McGill students or members of the McGill community may struggle with alcohol dependency: The implementation of social distancing measures has put additional strain on addiction recovery services. It is crucial that McGill students recognize the incessant efforts of addiction recovery services and harm reduction centres.
Closing liquor stores could have other lethal impacts outside of the issue of overburdening hospitals. People who are physically dependent on alcohol, but cannot access any, may start consuming surrogate alcohol, or products that contain alcohol but are not safe to be consumed by humans, such as hand sanitizer, mouthwash, and perfume.
Although the decision to keep the SAQ open is not a black and white issue, it is the right choice amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic effort: Hospitals must be able to maintain regular operations while also being able to handle a potential influx of people with COVID-19, and creating withdrawal-induced hospitalizations as a result of liquor store closures would be counterproductive. At this critical juncture in history, minimizing the number of people admitted to hospitals i must remain a priority. If you are a McGill student who is seeking help with alcohol or substance use, the McGill Wellness Hub has compiled resources and support online.