Professor challenges “heavy drinking culture”

Matt Gardner
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Holiday revellers often emerge from New Year’s Eve hangovers determined to moderate their drinking. But as the University of Saskatchewan research chair in substance abuse explains, the problem of excessive drinking goes far beyond the individual.

University of Saskatchewan professor and research chair in substance abuse Colleen Anne Dell suggests sticking to Canada’s new Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines to mitigate risk factors associated with alcohol consumption.

Since moving to the province a little more than five years ago, Prof. Colleen Anne Dell has seen plenty of evidence of what she refers to as the region’s “heavy drinking culture.”

“It’s part of the culture, and the rural (aspect) obviously comes into part of it when we talk about harm that comes from alcohol,” Dell said. “So for example, (with) drinking and driving … there aren’t the same options with taxis and things when you’re in a rural area.”

Saskatchewan is the province with the highest rate of deaths related to drinking and driving. In terms of economic impact, alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost the province half a billion dollars per year. Fifty-six percent of provincial residents in a recent public poll by the University of Saskatchewan said alcohol was a problem in their communities.

A resident of Saskatoon, Dell offered an anecdote to explain how common impaired driving remains.

“We live just outside the city and from the time we moved here to just the other day again, the number of times I see beer bottles on the highway or a bottle of whiskey empty, it’s just like, ‘Oh my gosh, people are obviously still drinking and driving,’” she said.

The prevalence of youth drinking is also a concern for Dell. When she first moved to Saskatoon, she remembered a local school hosting a “safe grad” that was designed to encourage responsible drinking by offering students tickets for drinks.

“I think the kids got 15 tickets, so 15 drinks a night or something,” she recalled. “And that’s absolutely not good, for many, many, many reasons …

“These are high amounts. These are kids who aren’t even 18, some of them, but this was sanctioned … People were out back and said, ‘Well, it’s my kid. They can do whatever I want my kid to do. They’re safe.’ I was like, ‘How is that safe? What is our definition of safe?’ Because a brain isn’t even fully matured until it’s 24, and putting that amount of toxin in it … is not safe.”

The quest to make drinking safer was what led to Canada’s National Alcohol Strategy, which put forward policies to encourage a “Culture of Moderation” across the country.

The rural (aspect) obviously comes into part of it when we talk about harm that comes from alcohol. Colleen Anne Dell

One of the fruits of this effort was the establishment of Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines, which encourage women to drink no more than two standard drinks on most drinking days and men to drink no more than three (or four on special occasions), with a limit of 15 drinks per week.

Knowing the volume of a standard drink can go a long way towards curbing excessive drinking at parties.

“If you’re at a house party or someone’s house … what is a standard wine glass?” Dell asked. “Are you getting a big goblet and it’s filled to the top? Well, you might have two drinks in there, not one. So two of those doesn’t mean you can go drive -- you’ve just had four drinks …

“Are they using a shot glass … so you know how much is going into your drink? You have to be really aware of those things.”

Another tip is drinking a glass of water between each drink to dilute the alcohol.

As part of her work, Dell has been involved in numerous programs aiming to address problem drinking. She is currently working with the Saskatchewan Team for Research and Evaluation of Addictions Treatment and Mental Health Services (STREAM), which is funded by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation and evaluates treatment methods with the goal of a more evidence-based approach.

Dell has also promoted What’s Your Cap?, a student initiative at the U of S that seeks to raise awareness and knowledge of the risks involved in overconsumption of alcohol. The idea is for students to talk with other students about the evidence on binge drinking.

“‘If you drink more than this amount, this is what’s happening to you and your body or what have you, so make the choices that are important for you,’” is how Dell summarized the approach.

“But it’s not a preachy type thing, and it’s from students for students and they really, really like that.”

More information about safe alcohol consumption and the risks of excessive drinking may be found at and

Organizations: University of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Team for Research, Addictions Treatment and Mental Health Services Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation

Geographic location: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

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Recent comments

  • Nkosi Damani
    January 05, 2013 - 22:04

    I enjoyed reading the article and feel hopeful that this communities efforts towards harm reduction are successful. I wonder though, if the professors comments about drinking water in between drinks is accurate or even helpful. I was not aware that drinking water can dilute the alcohol content.