Can booze help fix the damage it does?
If the province used its monopoly on alcohol sales to levy an extra $1 on a case of beer or bottle of wine, that new revenue could almost triple spending on preventing and treating fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Right now, the province spends about $11.5 million a year trying to curb drinking by pregnant women and mitigating the spinoff effects of FASD -- crime, poverty, school failures, homelessness, drug abuse and ill health.
Manitoba's Liquor Marts sold roughly 20 million bottles of wine, cases of beer and bottles of spirits last year. A $1 levy on each unit could bring the provincial government's FASD-fighting budget to more than $30 million.
The NDP government is about to start selling beer and wine in some grocery stores, but it says the idea of an FASD levy is a non-starter.
Surprisingly, Manitobans are more supportive of the idea.
According to a poll conducted by Probe Research last fall, before the Winnipeg Free Press launched a series of feature stories on the invisible FASD epidemic, 62 per cent of Manitobans said they would support a $1 levy if the revenue was earmarked to help people with FASD. Another 36 per cent said they opposed the idea.
The idea has been percolating for years, with little uptake from government.
More than a decade ago, when Health Canada was conducting nationwide consultations on its old fetal alcohol syndrome strategy, almost every focus group and stakeholder meeting touted the idea of a tax levied on alcohol to provide sustained funding for programs and services for people with FASD.
In the United Kingdom, there's been a low-grade debate over booze pricing for several years, with health advocates arguing for hefty new taxes to help fund treatment programs and curb the country's growing rates of binge drinking. The U.K. has already raised taxes and duties on alcohol, especially potent ciders, mostly to help balance austerity budgets instead of funding treatment programs or FASD services.
Three years ago, British Columbia's top public heath doctor also pushed the idea of a levy on alcohol.
In a report on B.C.'s alcohol polices, provincial health officer Perry Kendall called for "a health-promotion levy" of five cents on every drink sold, which would have raised a whopping $100 million a year.
Kendall said the cash could be used to fund alcohol treatment centres, addiction prevention and FASD programs.
He singled out the need for early diagnosis, so kids with FASD get help early on, before they flunk out of school or worse.
The proposal fizzled though, as it has most times it's been put forward.
"The idea of increasing the cost of alcohol hasn't really caught fire with legislators," said Kendall. "There just isn't a lot of appetite in government to increase taxes on alcohol."
The Manitoba government reaped more than $230 million in profits from alcohol sales in 2009-2010. Healthy Living Minister Jim Rondeau said the province has more than doubled spending on FASD since its strategy to tackle the scourge was announced in 2007. Back then, the province spent only $5.2 million on prevention and treatment and programs. Now it spends more than $11 million, and Rondeau says that money comes indirectly from alcohol sales, without the need of a dedicated levy.
A separate tax would be cumbersome, he said.
Would you personally support or oppose having the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission charge customers an extra $1 on a case of beer or a bottle of spirits to fund support programs for individuals with FASD?
Strongly support: 38 per cent
Moderately support: 24 per cent
Moderately oppose: 12 per cent
Strongly oppose: 24 per cent
Unsure: 2 per cent
The poll was conducted by Probe Research for the Winnipeg Free Press using a random telephone sample of 1,002 Manitobans between Sept. 16 and Sept. 30, 2010. It is considered accurate within three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
WHAT WE SPEND NOW
$11.5 million last year on dozens of initiatives, such as teacher's aides for kids with FASD, a special court program for young offenders with FASD, a diagnosis centre with a network in rural areas, FASD experts in every child welfare agency, a mentoring program for women at risk of having FASD children and more drug and alcohol treatment for women. Manitoba has one of the most comprehensive series of FASD programs in the country, but experts say hundreds of kids still go undiagnosed and fall through the cracks.
WHAT WE COULD DO WITH
AN EXTRA $20 MILLION
Shrink wait times at the diagnosis clinic:
It can take as long as 18 months for a child or teen to see the team of doctors, occupational therapists and social workers at the FASD Centre, the only place in Manitoba to get checked out for FASD. That often means families are left in limbo, struggling to cope with an unhappy child who isn't learning in school, acts out at home or risks getting in trouble with the law. More money would certainly help the clinic shrink wait times, but it's not quite that simple. Staff there say they also need to invest time training diagnosis staff, especially in rural areas, and making sure the right programs and services are in place for kids once they have a diagnosis.
Expand the Youth Justice Program:
Six years ago, lawyers and judges in youth court realized they were seeing the same kids over and over -- not bad kids, just ones who didn't seem to get it and couldn't stay out of trouble. That's when the Youth Justice Program started, to identify, diagnose and treat kids with FASD whose brain damage makes the criminal justice system just about the worst option. It's a program that's earned national attention for its focus on treatment rather than punishment. More than 455 kids have been referred, but only 125 kids have been assessed so far, partly due to a backlog. More space in the diagnosis clinic and a few more co-ordinators, especially outside Winnipeg, would likely save the province millions in needless crime and court costs.
Close the IQ loophole:
People with FASD often have normal or near-normal IQs, but their brain damage means they can't do many of the day-to-day tasks needed to live -- handling money, getting to work on time, planning ahead, staying focused. In most provinces, including Manitoba, to qualify for assisted living or special needs programs for the intellectually disabled, your IQ must fall below 70. That means many people with FASD don't qualify for help. Closing the loophole, especially for people with FASD, could help many for a modest cost.
The FASD battle is focused almost exclusively on kids because they're the most vulnerable and the most able to adapt with the right help. In most provinces, adults with FASD get the shaft. When people turn 18, a host of services provided by schools and the child welfare system often disappear and in Manitoba, adults can't get a diagnosis because the FASD Centre serves only children and teens. There is only one agency -- FASD Life's Journey -- that has programs tailored to adults with FASD who often end up homeless, unemployed, involved in crime or the sex trade and struggling with addictions. A levy on alcohol could make Manitoba a leader in FASD services for adults.