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Canada We need stricter regulation of so-called ‘alcoholic energy drinks’

In a 23-minute period of her high-school lunch hour, 14-year-old Athéna Gervais consumed the better part of three cans of a high-alcohol, high-sugar drink called FCKD UP – the equivalent of guzzling 12 glasses of wine. Highly intoxicated, she set off alone for a nearby Tim Hortons but strayed from the trail, fell into a creek and drowned.

That is the bare-bones summary of a coroner’s report, released on Tuesday, into the tragic Feb. 26, 2018, death of the teen from Laval, Que.

We will never know why Athéna chose to binge drink that day, or how she got the alcohol.

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But let’s dispense with moralism and victim blaming. Teens do stupid things sometimes, but they shouldn’t pay with their lives.

What Quebec coroner Martin Larocque rightly focused on in his report was the popularity and easy availability of so-called “alcoholic energy drinks.”

Everything about these products is aimed at seducing young people – the brightly coloured packaging, the cheeky names, the sweet flavours, the high alcohol-content and the low prices. The intense flavours mask the alcohol, making them easier to chug. In Quebec, these drinks are prominently displayed in dépanneurs (corner stores) and deeply discounted, especially in stores close to schools.

Twenty years ago, this kind of sleaziness was the norm with cigarette marketing, but we put an end to that nonsense.

Is there any reason we shouldn’t do the same with alcoholic drinks that are clearly targeting underage drinkers?

The type of product Athéna consumed, sold in 568-millilitre cans, contains a whopping 11.9-per-cent alcohol. They sell for as little as $4.

Premixed alcoholic drinks cannot contain caffeine, but they can contain guarana or coffee, natural stimulants that contain caffeine. The mixture of sugar and caffeine, stimulants, and alcohol, a depressant, can create a feeling described as wide-awake drunk that makes it likely people will drink to excess. This is also a problem when mixing non-alcoholic energy drinks such as Monster and Red Bull with alcohol.

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The more intoxicated a person becomes, the more likely they are to drive impaired, be a victim of violence, be a victim of sexual assault and risk death by misadventure.

What consumers don’t always realize is that one can of FCKD UP is the equivalent of three “standard drinks,” enough to put a 180-pound man over the legal limit. (Athéna weighed a mere 110 pounds, and she guzzled three cans; her blood-alcohol count was 0.192 when she died.)

Teenage girl’s drowning death linked to sugary alcoholic drinks, Quebec coroner says

The coroner, Mr. Larocque, made three recommendations:

  • Regulate the marketing of alcohol the way we do with tobacco, meaning plain packaging, banning or restricting flavouring, strict rules about advertising, and keeping products hidden and access restricted;
  • Implement the recommendations of the House of Commons standing committee on health report on highly sweetened premixed alcoholic beverages, notably the call to strictly limit the alcohol content;
  • Extend the rules that limit alcohol advertising in print, TV and radio to social media and other online forums.

Teens and young adults – and old adults for that matter – aren’t going to stop drinking, occasionally irresponsibly, because we fiddle with packaging and placement of alcoholic drinks in stores.

Drinkers will still get drunk if they want to, even if we restrict alcohol content, but they may not get drunk as quickly and keep their wits about them.

Had the drinks Athéna consumed been 4.5-per-cent alcohol rather than 11.9 per cent, who knows whether the outcome would have been different? Perhaps she would have had a nasty hangover rather than drowning.

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Stricter regulation is not a cure-all, but it is nonetheless important. It sends a straightforward message: Be careful.

The way high-sugar, high-alcohol energy drinks are produced, marketed and sold now – with the tacit approval of regulators – sends the exact opposite message: This is candy for grown-ups.

The death of Athéna sparked a lot of headlines, and there was a response: The product in question was discontinued, Quebec restricted access to these high-sugar, high-alcoholic drinks in dépanneurs, and the federal government more strictly regulated the alcohol content of these drinks to the equivalent of 1.5 standard drinks.

But that falls short of the sensible recommendations of the Commons committee, which said the alcohol content of these products should be limited to one standard drink.

The grim new coroner’s report should, if nothing else, prompt some sober second thought among legislators.

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