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Tax would aid mental health system

01.01.70

A nickel a drink could pay for better care and housing for sufferers, senators say
GLORIA GALLOWAY

OTTAWA -- If Canadians would pay an extra five cents for every bottle of beer, glass of wine or shot of Scotch they drink, the country's mentally ill could be adequately housed and cared for in their own communities, a group of senators said yesterday.

"A nickel a drink is all it would take to produce a first-class mental health system in Canada," Senator Michael Kirby told a news conference held to mark the release of a Senate committee's solutions for the problems posed by mental illness.

In a 500-page report called Out of the Shadows at Last -- the culmination of three years of work and thousands of interviews with people from every part of Canada -- the Senate social affairs committee recommends the establishment of a Canadian Mental Health Commission to develop a national strategy for improving the lives of people with mental problems.

The report also calls for a program to move patients out of psychiatric institutions and into homes in their own communities. The initiative, which would create 57,000 additional affordable-housing units and programs for continuing care, would cost $536-million annually for 10 years.

And it could be funded by increasing the excise tax on the cost of a glass of tipple by a nickel, the senators say.

"This would be the first increase in these taxes in 20 years and will raise just about the right amount of money," Mr. Kirby said.

"Moreover, as part of our proposal, we recommend -- we actually recommend -- that the excise tax on low-alcohol beer be lowered. We did this because the experience in Australia has shown that when there is a significant tax difference between regular-alcohol beer and lower-alcohol beer, it leads, in fact, to a decreased frequency of drunk-driving and a decreased frequency of alcohol-related family violence."

The commission that the senators are recommending would be paid for independently of the housing program and, although it was not included in the federal budget tabled earlier this month, they say there are ways of getting it up and running by the fall.

The commission would conduct a 10-year campaign to reduce the stigma and discrimination faced by people living with mental illnesses. And it would build a "state-of-the-art knowledge exchange centre that will provide Canadians with access to reliable information," Senator Wilbert Keon said.

The commission has already received positive support from mental-health experts and every level of government, said Mr. Keon, who added that it would be "a national -- not federal -- body," a distinction designed to alleviate fears that its work would tread into provincial jurisdiction.

The senators estimate that it would cost $17-million annually and is an initiative they say already has the support of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Health Minister Tony Clement. But Mr. Clement said yesterday that they were jumping the gun.

"They are quite enthusiastic, which they should be," Mr. Clement said. "They have put a lot of time and effort into this. [But] it's not my place to make that kind of commitment on behalf of the federal government."

During the federal election campaign, Mr. Harper indicated support for the Senate committee's work, said Mr. Clement. So "it behooves to take those recommendations very seriously."

As to the suggestion that an additional five cents should be added to alcoholic drinks to fund mental-health initiatives, Mr. Clement said it he would have to read the whole report before deciding.

Numerous mental-health organizations were on hand for the Senate report's release, and all expressed support for the report's recommendations.

Blake Woodside, the chairman of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, said the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health had been advocating for the sorts of things the Senate committee recommended.

"The establishment of a national mental health commission is a critical step toward developing a national strategy for mental health," Dr. Woodside said. "We are the only G8 country without such a strategy."

Mr. Kirby said the stories he and the other senators heard as they gathered information for the report moved them to tears.

"They also angered us, because they made it clear how little governments have done over the years," he said.

"We can no longer tolerate that governments place mental-health issues on a permanent back burner. We must create an atmosphere in which all Canadians feel as comfortable discussing mental-health issues with family and friends as they do talking about physical illnesses."

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