CAPSA Leads National Conversation on Substance Use Health


Photo © Courtesy of CAPSA

People in Canada have little information on the health impacts of substance use, including alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. We have all heard stories about people affected by substance use disorder (“addictions”), but what about the 78 per cent of people who use substances socially, occasionally, or regularly who don’t have a disorder? Where do they go for information, resources, or support around their health?

CAPSA and the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction recently conducted a national survey that shows that “average” Canadians rarely talk about substance use with family and friends and even less with healthcare providers. Presumably, Canadians think they have enough information to make healthy decisions when it comes to their substance use. The 86 per cent of survey respondents who believed their substance use incurred no risk, low risk, or benefits thought so.

A deeper look at the data raises some alarming questions about this assumption:

  • Most people surveyed get their health information about substance use from outside the healthcare system: 49 per cent turn to the media, their own research (37 per cent), and family and friends (34 per cent) more often than healthcare workers (29 per cent).
  • Seventy-one per cent don’t know where to turn if they want to “change or manage their substance use in some way.” Of the 29 per cent who did, only 0.7 per cent thought their doctor could help.
  • Sixty-two per cent have never been asked about their substance use by a healthcare provider. Eighty-three per cent have never brought it up themselves.
  • Seventy-six per cent believe they personally have enough information to make healthy decisions about their substance use.

Do we? In a report released earlier this year, Canadians were surprised to learn that 57 per cent of them consume alcohol at a level that puts them at a moderate (17 per cent) to high risk (40 per cent) of early death from multiple cancers, stroke, heart disease, and more. This information shocked those who consume more than six drinks/week, who were now considered, overnight, to be “high-risk drinkers.”

If the health impacts are not convincing, research also shows that the highest total costs of substance use to the Canadian economy are not incurred by people with substance use disorder but by statistically “average” consumers of substances. Lost productivity far outweighs healthcare costs by $9 billion annually.

The toll of silence (and stigma) is palpable and yet overlooked in a way that no other health condition is. We promote strategies for physical and mental health as a matter of practice, policy, and in daily conversation—public education, medication, meditation, check-ups, product labelling, and healthy eating guides. We just don’t apply the same thinking to substance use. It’s odd how stigmatized the conversation is, given the prevalence of substance use and its impacts.

CAPSA’s mission is to change this by stimulating a national conversation about Substance Use Health. We are seeing uptake from diverse organizations across the country. At the national level, the framework has been presented in the Canadian Senate. It has influenced the policies of Canada’s first National Standards on Mental Health and Substance Use Health. Ottawa Public Health, the Government of Yukon, and Carleton and Memorial University have put forth strategies to support all people who use substances. Internationally, CAPSA has been a regular presenter at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and CAPSA’s message is gaining traction globally.

Substance Use Health affects us all. Together, we can take action to dismantle systemic stigma, improve access to information and care, and ultimately achieve better health outcomes.

To learn more about CAPSA’s training, research, or partnership opportunities, visit our website at

CAPSA is a pan-Canadian organization led by systemic stigma experts with education, research, clinical practice, and policy development backgrounds. Their work is informed by their experience with substance use disorder.

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CAPSA actively collaborates with organizations, communities, and systems, resulting in substantial improvements in people’s health concerning substance use. 


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