Putting the brakes on sugary high alcohol drinks

Parliament worked the way it is meant to this week when an NDP emergency motion that directs the health committee to study on how to better regulate beverages with high alcohol content, caffeine, and sugar was passed.  The motion came on the heels of a tragic set of events that left a Quebec teen dead.  At the center of the issue is the malt beverage, “FCKD UP,” which has an alcohol content of 11.9%.

Athena Gervais is the Quebec teen who was found dead in a stream three days after disappearing and it is suspected that the sugary, high alcohol drink played a significant role in the tragedy.  Her friends reported that she been drinking stolen cans of FCKD UP at lunch and had appeared visibly drunk when they last saw her.  She did not return to school only to be found days later. 

That death of has set in motion a number of developments including the Province of Quebec banning  the sale of pre-mixed malt-based beverages containing more than seven per cent alcohol from anywhere other than the SAQ, the provincial liquor outlet.  Prior to this, the drinks were readily available at corner stores where security can be much looser than it is at the SAQ.

The motion that was adopted this week will see the health committee hold an emergency study to investigate how Health Canada can better regulate beverages with high alcohol content, caffeine, and sugar. This is one instance where parliament hopes to move quickly and the study’s recommendations are expected to be reported back to the House by June 2018, at the latest. The sense among MPs who support the motion is that there is no time to waste.

The drinks are clearly aimed at young people and without regulations the potential for more tragedies is obvious. That is why New Democrats wrote to the Health Minister requesting her to restrict the maximum allowable alcohol concentration in these drinks, to reduce the can size, and to add warning labels about the dangers of mixing alcohol, caffeine and sugar.

It appears the will is there to do just that. At the same time as the health committee motion was being passed, Health Canada announced it will propose consultations to make changes to the Food and Drug Regulations to add restrictions to the amount of alcohol in sweetened energy drinks.  The proposal will include limiting the size, amount of sugar and artificial sweetener, and alcoholic content of single-serve beverages in non-resealable containers.

Athena Gervais’ father travelled to Ottawa to be a part of the call for the committee to act. He spoke for many more parents who are worried about the popularity of these drinks with teens. His presence reinforced the notion that we can’t afford to wait years when it comes to regulating products that are clearly marketed towards young people and have enough alcohol in them to do serious damage.  The sad truth is that all of these developments are the product of an avoidable tragedy.  Parliament will be doing its job, if we can make it much more difficult for these drinks to claim any other young people.