An average of 212 Canadians were admitted to hospital every day because of alcohol use between 2015 and 2016.
New research from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) found hospitals checked in 77,000 patients for medical issues that were caused by harmful booze consumption. That figure excludes patients who were treated by emergency departments and sent home.
The results of the first-time study were high enough to catch the researchers off guard. Average daily alcohol-related hospital stays chugged past the daily average for heart attacks (205) that year.
“We were surprised to see that the number is so high,” CIHI director Jean Harvey told CTV Atlantic on Thursday. She warns these findings are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Canadians’ dangerously excessive thirst.
That’s because the study excluded a number of alcohol-related health risks, such as motor vehicle accidents caused by impaired driving and hospitalizations for medical conditions brought on by regular heavy drinking.
A total of 56,600 individuals were hospitalized during the studied period, 21 per cent of which had two or more hospital stays.
Harvey estimates 80 per cent of Canadians drink, and insists more research is required to get a full understanding of the toll and fully assess how to reduce harm.
What is clear, however, is that the likelihood of landing in a hospital bed after imbibing depends a lot on who you are, and where you live.
With the exception of Nova Scotia, provinces in the east generally saw lower rates of alcohol-related hospitalization than their western neighbours. Looking closer, the study found that people who live in the northern-most reaches of each province were at a greater risk.
Provincial and territorial rates for hospitalizations entirely caused by alcohol ranged from 172 per 100,000 in New Brunswick to 1,315 per 100,000 in the Northwest Territories.
Rural Canadians were found to require hospitalization more often than their urban counterparts, a fact researchers say could be partially explained by scarcer treatment resources.
Men in Canada landed in the hospital more often than women, except between the ages of 10 and 19.
“It may be because teen girls are choosing alcohol that has higher alcohol content than boys, for example, drinking vodka while the boys are drinking beer,” Harvey said. She also noted that physiological difference could play a role.
The gender split mirrors those found in drinking patterns. There is a significantly higher prevalence of self-reported heavy drinking among men compared to women.
The rate of hospitalization came in 2.5 times higher in the lowest-income neighbourhoods compared to the wealthiest areas in Canada, even though previous data suggests both groups consume similar amounts.
Researchers call this phenomenon as the “alcohol harm paradox,” and point to a range of socioeconomic factors like higher stress, less social support, poorer diet, less physical activity, and a higher risk of binge drinking and drinking in unsafe settings.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found provinces and territories with greater alcohol sales generally had a higher prevalence of heavy drinking. That pattern was clearly observed in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, British Columbia, and to a lesser extent, Alberta.
Quebec bucked the trend. Hospitalizations there were low on average, while both heavy drinking and sales exceed the Canadian average.
Dr. Sam Campbell, chief of Halifax Infirmary’s emergency department, said the CIHI’s snapshot of Canadians, alcohol, and hospital stays is a deeply concerning one.
“I think it is a huge wake-up call. Everyone is worried about having a heart attack. Few people are worried about their liver failing,” he said.
Dr. Campbell said alcohol use places a major burden on Canada’s health care system. The CIHI estimated that tab for alcohol-related direct health care costs topped $3.3 billion in 2002, part of a $14 billion strain placed on the broader economy.
“If you got rid of alcohol and cigarettes, the strain on the health care system would be a lot lighter,” Dr. Campbell said.
“I think what this is showing is that it definitely is an issue in this country,” Harvey said. “This is only a very small part of the overall alcohol story.”
With a report from CTV Atlantic’s Kelland Sundahl