‘Call to action’ made on alcohol strategy

Matt
Matt Gardner
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Community leaders gathered at the Community Mobilization Prince Albert (CMPA) office on Thursday to hear what was billed as a “call to action” to develop a comprehensive regional alcohol strategy.

Representatives of city council, area school boards, corrections, the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region and other agencies were among the attendees at the event, which presented the case for an alcohol strategy encompassing the city of P.A. and surrounding region.

“You’re here for a reason,” CMPA executive director Ken Hunter told the audience at the beginning, noting that the four freezing deaths last winter served as an initial impetus for the project.

“We believe that each and every one of you are leaders in our community, touch a wide base of our community and are good folks to share what we want to see roll out for an alcohol strategy both in Prince Albert and our region.”

The primary facilitators of the information session were Const. Lisa Simonson of the Prince Albert Police Service (currently seconded to CMPA) and addictions sector specialist Glenis Clarke.

“This is just in its infancy stages right now,” Simonson said. “What you’ve seen here today is nearly a year’s worth of work up to this point.”

“We’re just starting some information sessions right now,” she added. “Then we’re rolling into the focus groups and there will be opportunity for the community to get involved.”

Simonson and Clarke presented a range of sobering statistics to illustrate the scale of the city’s alcohol problem in five main areas: chronic alcoholism, youth and underage drinking, binge drinking, liquor compliance and licensed establishments, and impaired driving.

On average, Prince Albert residents over 15 years of age spent approximately $1,249 per person on alcohol in 2011.

By comparison, residents of Moose Jaw -- a city with a comparable population -- spent only $731 per person on alcohol that year. The provincial average is $703.

The sheer financial cost of chronic alcoholism to Prince Albert was made clear, with local police spending $2,548,994 between May 2009 and 2012 for the arrest and lodging of people solely due to public intoxication.

In 2012 alone, 1,341 hours (or 55 days) of policing services were spent on public intoxication arrests.

Youth drinking numbers are also higher than average. 552 of the 5,595 people arrested from 2009 to 2012 for public intoxication were youth.

Where 49.4 per cent of Grade 10 students across Canada reported binge drinking, the number for Prince Albert tenth-graders is 67.9 per cent.

While many attribute Prince Albert’s status as the “Gateway to the North” for inflating alcohol figures due to the presence of outsiders, Clarke noted that youth drinking figures are a different matter.

“We’re a broad, broad area -- we’re a very rural area and a very transient area,” she said.

“Those are all common things, but when you take a look at our youth numbers, those are our youth. Those aren’t youth that are coming through on the way to the cabin or the way back to a northern community.

“Those are our kids, and we know that we can’t just say that this is from a population outside of our boundaries.”

Binge drinking is a problem across age groups, with 54 per cent of surveyed youth reporting binge drinking by age 16. Meanwhile, 62 per cent of Hub discussions involve the abuse of alcohol.

Between 2010 and 2012, a total of 5,205 calls for police service were made from the city’s 50 liquor licensed establishments, at a cost of $873,607 for police resources only. The majority of calls were for intoxicated persons, evictions, disturbances, impaired drivers, violence and property crime.

Of the 22,876 impaired driving occurences that took place within Saskatchewan over a three-year period, almost half -- 10,462 -- took place within the north district (north of Rosthern).

We want this strategy to be built in the community and from the ground up. Const. Lisa Simonson

Finally, alcohol or drug abuse constituted 33 per cent of intakes at the P.A. Ministry of Social Services over a three-month study period in 2012, as well as 9.2 per cent or 458 emergency room visits from June to August and 37.5 per cent of the city’s violent crime between 2010 and 2012.

For Clarke, a key question is, “How do we make it so that this is a safe place, a healthy place and a controlled place to come and enjoy and raise your family, and be here and stop through on your way to your cabin … or come to concerts and really enjoy everything that we have? Because this is a beautiful place to be.”

The presenters pointed to four overlapping elements of a prospective alcohol strategy.

They included education and prevention (such as mandatory Serve It Right training for staff who serve alcohol), harm reduction (increasing the number of cold weather overnight shelters, expanding late night transportation), support and treatment (e.g. faith-based programs) and enforcement (zero-tolerance school policies, increasing high-visibility checkstop campaigns).

A recurring idea was the need to change attitudes and raise awareness of the dangers of alcohol abuse.

“We have to make it unacceptable, just like how smoking has become an unacceptable thing,” YWCA executive director Donna Brooks said.

Simonson pointed to the need to work closely with bars, restaurants and hotels.

“It’s working with the hospitality industry in relation to that -- educating them, talking about prevention, making sure they understand what the rules are and how they need to follow them and what agencies are there to help them, and I think that’ll go a long, long way,” she said.

Hunter noted that municipal councils across the province have the ability to regulate alcohol consumption.

“Council’s empowered to shut off-sale down to 2 o’clock if that makes sense in Prince Albert,” he said as an example.

“It might not make sense in Swift Current or Estevan, but given the dynamics of what’s going on for the health of our community, that might be something that council takes on.”

Coun. Rick Orr said that there was a great appetite to regulate from city council’s point of view, but also pointed to the need to research potential economic effects of any new regulations.

Clearing up a potential misconception, Simonson noted, “One of the most important parts with this strategy is we’re not telling people not to drink. That’s not the message.

“The message is, be responsible and drink sociably. Be responsible about it. If you're going to drink too much, make sure that you have a plan in place. Are you taking a cab home? Have you identified a designated driver? Those types of things.”

The next stage in the development of an alcohol strategy, she said, would be the four to six focus groups expected to commence by the end of January.

“The purpose of those focus groups is to give each person a voice as to how they see our community in relation to alcohol … what they think could be improved on and any opinions or ideas that they may have,” she said.

“That is going to help develop a vision for the strategy, because at this point in time, as we’ve mentioned before, there is no strategy. We want this strategy to be built in the community and from the ground up.”

She encouraged residents interested in learning more to contact the CMPA office.

Organizations: Prince Albert, P.A. Ministry of Social Services, YWCA

Geographic location: Moose Jaw, Canada, Saskatchewan Rosthern Swift Current

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