South Asian community health workers in Mississauga and Brampon welcome new low-risk alcohol guidance

Published January 26, 2023 at 2:13 pm

An alcoholic beverage is seen in a drinking establishment in Halifax on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Doctors and health workers are applauding new alcohol consumption recommendations and say the guidelines could help Missisauga and Brampton’s South Asian communities.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) overhauled recommendations on alcohol use this month, saying more than seven standard drinks per week puts people at higher risk of cancer and heart disease.

That’s a drastic change from its guidelines in 2011 which said men could safely consume 15 drinks per week while women could have 10 drinks.

The new guidance from the CCSA is prompting Mississauga and Brampton’s Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS) to reconsider the non-profit’s harm-reduction model in favour of abstinence while still providing counselling for those who choose to cut back or are dealing with addiction.

“We are now debating whether PCHS as an organization should take a position that, ‘Look, no drinking is safe. These are the consequences of drinking.’ These are the discussions we are having internally,” said Baldev Mutta, CEO of PCHS.

Mutta said he’s “struggling” with how to communicate why the updated guidance advises that up to two drinks a week. He said alcohol consumption among Sikh men in particular is a growing concern and contradicts the religion’s prohibition against addictive substances.

“It’s very interesting that people who follow the religion refuse to smoke because smoking is also prohibited in the Sikh religion. But it’s equally forbidden to drink and yet Sikhs drink,” he said.

Mutta said PCHS has plans to start a new education and awareness campaign in April.

Mutta said significant use of alcohol among Sikhs has roots in India’s colonial history when a large number of Punjabi men were in the British army and participated in the custom of officers drinking in the mess hall.

“Every soldier was allowed to purchase two bottles of rum every month. Even after retirement, they could go to a canteen and on a subsidized rate they could purchase two bottles of rum.”

Former soldiers continued the tradition of drinking in the evening at home in their villages, he said, adding alcohol was introduced at weddings in the 1950s before becoming a regular part of various celebrations.

Mutta said there’s a need for research into alcohol use among the vulnerable South Asian community in order to better understand specific barriers and improve access to treatment.

A review of limited literature related to alcohol use disorder among people of South Asian descent in Canada and the United States says that group may struggle to receive care despite increased morbidity.

The 2018 review said immigrant, refugee and racialized populations have a lower participation in health promotion, prevention and services compared with others and that barriers may include language and stigma.

The CCSA did not provide suggestions on how to reach specific communities with its messaging, but health workers say they hope to address issues such as language while providing culturally sensitive information to the South Asian community as they try to convey that just two drinks per week are now considered low risk.

“Given the uniquely high risk of alcohol use issues and morbidity among South Asians, it is clear that a more focused and nuanced understanding of (alcohol use disorder) treatment in this (population) is necessary,” says the review, which notes no North American studies focus specifically on South Asians in alcohol treatment settings.

Dr. Parm Brar, who treats addiction at a clinic specifically for South Asian patients says Canada’s new guidance on alcohol bolsters his efforts to convey the message about associated harms to a community that is at higher risk for conditions such as heart disease.

“I’m really happy to finally hear that there is support from objective guidelines for the information that we already knew,” said Brar, who works at the Roshni Clinic in Surrey, B.C.

“This is something that we can use as part of our resources as far as being able to say to people, ‘Well, look, there’s this objective evidence for this, that it’s harming you,'” Brar said of updated guidance by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

Brar, who is also a physician in the emergency room of Surrey Memorial Hospital, said South Asians, which make up a large proportion of the population in the region, sometimes address the issue as a family, accompanying relatives whose alcohol consumption starts to interfere with their daily lives.

“I think this is a step in the right direction,” Brar said of pointing people to the updated guidance, which emphasize health risk at higher consumption levels for all populations.

With files from The Canadian Press

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