The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Single and Smashed: Marital Status and Alcohol Abuse in Canada

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

As elite educators and entertainers continue to extoll the glories of the single life, marriage rates in many countries tumble to all-time lows.  Unfortunately, the growing number of singles are much more likely than their married peers to hit the bottle. Indeed, alcohol abuse among singles emerges as a serious issue in a study recently published by a team of public-health scholars affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan.

This team of researchers explain why they chose to study alcohol abuse in Canada in terms that can only be characterized as sobering. The authors of the study emphasize that “the misuse of alcohol . . . is associated with a number of negative health, social, and economic consequences.” These adverse consequences include the “direct health implications” of “dependency, liver cirrhosis, organ damage, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and various types of cancer.” Besides creating these problems with physical health, alcohol abuse leads to “impaired judgement, impaired driving, injury, suicide, and risky sexual behaviour,” triggering a cascade of “broader health and social repercussions.”  

To underscore the magnitude of alcohol-related problems in Canada, the researchers cite a 2006 study concluding that the national total for “alcohol-related costs” for 2002 came in at a staggering $14.6 billion (Canadian dollars). Health-care costs alone ran to $3.3 billion, with the other costs attributable to alcohol-related expenses for law enforcement and losses of productivity. The researchers also cite a more recent study finding that in 2013 the national costs of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder came to $1.8 billion.

South of the border, Americans feel even more ill effects of alcohol abuse: The researchers cite a 2011 study putting annual societal costs of alcohol abuse in the United States at a stunning $223.5 billion (U.S. dollars), $24.5 billion of that total for healthcare. 

Though deeply concerned about the overall effects of alcohol abuse, the authors of the new study focus on “risky single occasion drinking (RSOD),” citing evidence that “as the frequency of RSOD increases, the likelihood of negative health and social consequences increases.” The researchers defined Risky Single Occasion Drinking (RSOD) as “drinking five or more drinks on one occasion.” Given that a standard drink in Canada contains about 14 grams of pure ethanol, RSOD in this study means consuming 70 grams of alcohol in one sitting.

To determine which Canadians are most likely to engage in such drinking, the Saskatchewan scholars parse data collected in 2009-2010 from 68,440 adults as part of the Canadian Community Health Survey. The data reveal a number of rather predictable characteristics of those most likely to engage in risky drinking—males, smokers, adolescents, and highly stressed individuals are more prone to such drinking than are females, non-smokers, senior citizens, and unstressed individuals.

But given the changes in family life that have transformed social life in Canada and other affluent nations in recent decades, nothing in this new study deserves more attention than the finding that “marriage is associated with a protective effect on the risk of RSOD.” More specifically, the researchers calculate that “the odds of RSOD [are] 1.77 times more in the single/never married category than in the married category.” This almost two-fold elevation of the likelihood of risky drinking shows up likewise in the widowed, divorced, and separated category (Odds Ratio of 1.75). Given the decided emotional and social differences between losing a spouse to death and losing a spouse to divorce, it is unfortunate that the researchers did not segregate their data more fully.

Fortunately, the researchers did separate the data for legally wed couples from that for cohabiting or common-law couples. And the data indicate that “persons living in common-law were more likely to engage in . . . RSOD . . . than married individuals (Odds Ratio 1.51).”   The authors of the new study consider it “interesting” that individuals in common-law relationships were more than half again as likely as married counterparts to engage in risky drinking.  After all, they note, “common-law couples have enjoyed similar tax benefits and legal status in Canada as married couples due to high profile court cases.” Speculating on why progressive judicial decisions have not erased the marked differences in drinking behavior separating married couples from common-law couples, the authors of the study point to research finding that common-law couples are “more likely to separate than married couples, are more likely to experience relationship strain, and enjoy fewer economic benefits.”   The authors of the new study plausibly suggest that “the higher levels of instability in common-law relationships and households may contribute to the increased odds of RSOD.” 

Above and beyond what this new study teaches us about the risky drinking of common-law couples, perhaps the real take-away is what it teaches about the folly of progressive judges who think they can realign the meaning of wedlock by ideological fiat. What is clear is that so long as the retreat from wedlock—real wedlock—continues in Canada and elsewhere, a dwindling number of men and women will enjoy the “protective effect” of marriage.

For public-health officials at least, “Happy Hour” at the local bar is likely to bring ever more unhappiness in the years ahead.  

(Ellen Rafferty et al., “Factors Influencing Risky Single Occasion Drinking in Canada and Policy Implications,” Archives of Public Health 75 [2017]: 22, Web.)