British Columbia Says Alcoholism is a Disease. Does it Matter?

By Dirk Hanson 05/24/11

“Problem drinking” is costing B.C. taxpayers billions, says Ministry of Health.

Official disease model province.
Photo via batonswesttwirling

Back in April, the government of British Columbia formally declared that it intended to recognize and treat alcoholism as a chronic disease. It was the first province in Canada to do so. But does it really mean anything, or was it a purely symbolic gesture? The Saanich News on Vancouver Island recently looked into the burden alcohol places on local health and law enforcement resources, as well as workplace absenteeism. In a report by provincial health officer Perry Kendall, booze was estimated to have cost British Columbia taxpayers a whopping $2.2 billion in 2008. In the last 10 years, the paper discovered that the “Ministry of Health has increased its mental health and addictions budget 52 per cent to $1.3 billion, recognizing that ‘problem drinking’ places a major burden on the system.” The province estimates 21,000 hospitalizations each year are related to heavy drinking. The Centre for Addictions Research B.C. at the University of Victoria believes that alcohol will soon overtake tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death in the province. Tim Stockwell, director of the Center, said that “a recent study has suggested that we’ve hugely underestimated the number of cancer deaths caused by drinking.” Stockwell told the Saanich News that the disease model worked for him, and “if that helps get them treatment, fine. I think it’s a great simplification.”

But are all these costs truly the result of a diagnosable disease? Not everyone agrees. Michael Walsh, founder of the Canadian branch of the recovery group LifeRing, believes the disease declaration by B.C. is the wrong way to go. Early in his recovery, Walsh said, he objected to the notion of a hereditary disease treatable only through the 12-step program of A.A. “I’m Michael and I’m more than someone who has struggled with addiction and abuse,” he said. But Stockwell at the University of Victoria believes that there is a “continuum of dependence severity.” And since there is so much about human behavior that includes a well-established genetic component, he is not much bothered about that aspect of the disease model, either.

Perhaps British Columbia has in fact made a largely symbolic gesture. But symbols matter. And in this case, the symbolism is designed to combat the stigma, and to increase the number of addicts who are dealing effectively with their addiction. But come to think of it, Canada does have its MMAR (Marihuana Medical Access Regulations), which allows for medical cannabis use under certain situations. And B.C. bud is ranked as some of the best marijuana grown in North America. So perhaps we’re being naïve, and the whole thing is just a smooth strategy to pave the way for a thriving medical marijuana industry in the province.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]