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Editor’s Letter: A super scientific study of a boozy city

For our April issue, we set out to survey Toronto’s drinking habits

Editor's Letter: A super scientific study of a boozy city
Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Ours, for better or worse, is a city that likes its drink. Slog through the weekly grind, big presentation or TTC commute and there she is, arms wide, saying, Good job. Over the decades, alcohol has liberated the creative souls of our rock stars, artists and stand-up comedians. It has given a shy young person the nerve to approach that certain someone who might go on to become a lifelong partner. It has turned countless ho-hum nights out into something unforgettable.

It’s a huge part of journalism too. Drinks with colleagues, drinks with writers, drinks with sources. File a big story? A round of paper planes. And, in this city, there’s no shortage of places to go. There are 4,327 liquor-licensed establishments in the GTA, which averages out to one for every thousand citizens of drinking age.

During the pandemic, we embraced our self-image as profligate boozers. That end-of-the-week glass of Pinot crept into Thursday, then Wednesday and Tuesday, until we were hosting a daily happy hour. In my case, I got very into cocktails. I could whip up a bourbon sour—the version with emulsified egg white and such—from memory. My gin gimlets became a point of pride. Same with my old fashioneds. Demerara gum syrup. Frosted glasses. Bitters. It was a whole thing.

Editor's Letter: A super scientific study of a boozy city

I know I wasn’t alone. Most friends, family and colleagues were consuming more than ever. But the effects of that change are now being felt. A study just out from ICES, led by an Ottawa-based family physician, suggests that the spike in drinking during lockdown resulted in a 22 per cent rise in visits to doctors, psychiatrists and addiction specialists.

A delicious, mind-altering poison may not be good for you? It wasn’t exactly a stop-the-presses moment. But, for a long time, the prevailing wisdom suggested that two or three drinks a day was totally fine. Wine was said to de-stress, boost immunity and lead to a healthy overall lifestyle. Just look at the Italians!

Well, apparently that’s not quite right. A January 2023 report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction states that, in fact, no amount of alcohol is risk-free; if you must drink, don’t exceed two per week. How far from the new recommendation are Torontonians? We had no idea. To find out, we partnered with polling experts Angus Reid. We wanted to know everything. Who drinks what, where and why? Is the double martini lunch still a thing? Mocktails...really? How are our habits changing? No problem, they said.

In early February, they polled 1,000 people from ages 19 to 80 across the city, and the results were riveting. Younger people tend to lean on booze to help them socialize. Older folks dislike bars, but they’re happy to drink alone. Women still prefer wine, men beer. Friday is big for drinking, but Saturday reigns supreme. Ready-to-drink coolers are on the upswing, and the piña colada has surprising staying power. Most telling was the fact that a whopping 92 per cent of drinkers had heard about the new guidelines, and a quarter intended to change their intake.

We wrangled all that data into “The Toronto Booze Poll,” a lively, eye-opening and occasionally alarming look at our booze-soaked metropolis. Overall, if the new guidelines prompt some of us to be healthier, we can get behind them. The government, now and again, does have our best interests at heart. But tolerance only goes so far. If they come for our coffee, the gloves come off.

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Malcolm Johnston is the editor of Toronto Life. He can be reached via email at editor@torontolife.com.

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