Substance abuse affects everyone says medical officer of health

But there are ways to address problem, including anti-harm campaigns targeting children: Mercer

GUELPH – Dr. Nicola Mercer echoed the sentiments of the Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario at the local board of health meeting on April 3.

Mercer, medical officer of health for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, said Dr. Kieran Moore recently released his annual report for 2023, in which he focuses on the harms and impacts of substance abuse including tobacco, vaping products, cannabis, alcohol and opioids.

“It’s a fascinating read,” Mercer said, noting the harms of substance abuse cost billions of dollars collectively through the health care system, the judicial system, lost productivity and other direct costs.

Moore speaks of the “balancing act” between individual autonomy and the overall health of the population that is necessary to foster healthier individuals, communities and society.

“With this report, I am adding my voice to the voices of many professional, public health and community organizations, and of people with lived experience of substance use and substance use harms, who have identified the need to take collective action urgently to address the harms of substance use in Ontario,” Moore wrote in his report.

Mercer pointed out there are harms with legal substances as well – it’s not just opioid deaths we need to be concerned about.

There are plenty of ways to address the problem and targeting anti-harm campaigns at children is one that would have long-term benefits to individuals and to society as a whole.

And it’s relatively easy and low-cost to do, Mercer said, although it will take policy changes from upper levels of government for these initiatives to have teeth.

“There’s room to raise taxes” on cigarettes and vaping products, she said. High costs make these items less accessible to youth.

Raising the purchase age to 21 could help keep these addictive products out of schools, she added. And banning flavoured vaping products would make them less appealing to youth as well.

Because of the way their brains are developing, youth who use cannabis can become addicted to it. So restricting online advertising is one thing that could reduce exposure and the desire to try it.

Alcohol is another beast to tackle.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges in families – for youth and adults – and it will take more than restricting access to make a difference,” Mercer said.

She noted inequities across the province in terms of having assessment and treatment programs nearby and available to those ready to seek treatment.

In this region, “there is a detox centre in Kitchener, but it has a long wait list,” she said.

“That’s not equitable or rapid or supportive of the individual.”

Many of those initiatives need to be started – and funded – by provincial and federal governments, Mercer acknowledged.

But public health can target more positive messaging about the harms of substance abuse to children and youth through the programs they already run.

“We would like more resources,” Mercer acknowledged.

“But if we focus on the early years, we can put children on the right path.”

Moore’s full report can be found at by searching “chief medical officer of health annual report 2023.”