Quebec's High-Sugar Alcohol Crackdown Feels Good, But Does Little

Two weeks ago the body of a 14-year old girl named Athena Gervais was found in a stream in Laval, Quebec just outside of Montreal. While the cause of her death has yet to be determined, it is confirmed that she was drinking stolen cans of ‘Fckd Up,’ an 11.9% alcohol malt beverage available in fruity flavors. The province of Quebec, and more broadly the government of Canada, are considering regulating the beverages.

A little preface about liquor laws in Canada: All liquor sales are regulated by provincial and territorial governments. This means that the drinking age and how alcohol is distributed differs from province to province. Quebec has a minimum drinking age of 18, with all liquor and some wines being distributed by government-owned retailers. However, some wines and all beers are legal to sell at supermarkets and corner stores, which is where the controversy begins.

The teen in question reportedly stole the beverages which have no formal link to her death at a local corner store, drank them on her lunch break and went missing for three days before her body was found. Now a group of her friends and family are petitioning the government to ban the sale of high-alcohol and high-sugar drinks outright.

And they are getting a lot of support. Quebec Public Health Minister Lucie Charlebois has expressed her support for a ban on these types of drinks, while federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor is launching a consultative campaign to limit the alcohol content, size, and availability of sugary, high-alcohol beverages.

On the face of it, the reaction makes sense. A young girl is dead, the impulse to point a finger is strong,  and the easy culprit is the fruity, easy to drink beverages she consumed earlier that day. But authorities do not know what killed Athena Gervais and blaming the drink is a cop-out.

I can place myself in the position of the government official being petitioned. The drink is already repellent to me, a concoction of malt-liquor and synthetic corn-syrup based flavoring designed to get people very drunk, very quickly. It falls below the maximum allowable alcohol in retail stores by a tenth of a percent. Geloso, the company that markets ‘Fckd Up’ is clearly targeting a younger market with their colorful, flashy logo and subversive-ish name.  It’s designed for the frat and sorority market and their younger imitators. Is making a drink like this illegal going to hurt to hurt anyone except these shameless profiteers?

In all honesty, no. Forbidding the sale of ‘Fckd Up’ and ‘Four Loco’ and their ilk is not going to cost a significant number of jobs and will not leave a hole in the market that the majority of consumers will notice or care about.

What it will do is set a precedent that when a substance is tangentially involved in the death of minor, it is banned.

This bothers me primarily because of its lack of rationality. If there were a demonstrable crisis of teens drinking themselves to death on high-alcohol, high-sugar beverages then such legislation would be warranted. If there is a crisis to address, then I am all for government intervention. But as far as anyone can tell this is an isolated incident involving one teen.

It reminds me of a case in Ontario where the government moved to ban flavored cigarillos in 2008. The thinking was that these products were designed to appeal to the young demographic and were a gateway to a lifetime of smoking. They were a similarly distasteful product, sold by the single unit in circumvention of provincial regulation, without any health warnings on the packaging. They were similarly branded to look “cool” but were candy flavored for the teen palate. In the years since the ban, smoking has not substantially decreased in Ontario. There is certainly no evidence that this ban had any lasting effect beyond the many anti-smoking initiatives which were already in place.

It was appeasement legislation, designed to make citizens think the government had the well-being of their children at heart.

This ban on sugary high-alcohol drinks rings hollow in the same way.

I was a teenager in Canada, and it was certainly not difficult for me to procure massive amounts of alcohol and sugary beverages to mix it with. Nor was it for the generation before me, or the one that is now experimenting with alcohol. A ban on premixed beverages would not have saved or deterred any of us. According to Statistics Canada, 83% of Grade 12 students admit to using alcohol. Narrowing their options is not going to deter the behavior or protect kids.

Good controls on where children can procure alcohol, frank education about consumption habits and the dangers of abuse, and good parental oversight are the only ways to prevent what happened to Athena Gervais from happening to other young people.

But those factors are difficult to regulate and even more difficult to enforce. It feels a lot better to whack this particular mole, point to it and declare a job well done.

Banning this drink isn’t going to make a lick of difference, even if it feels good to do it.

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