Restrictions to alcohol content in sugary drinks take effect across Canada

New regulations restricting the amount of alcohol allowed in potent, sugary, premixed drinks take effect Thursday across Canada, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor told CBC. 

Until now, a 568-millilitre can of the drink, which Health Canada refers to as a “flavoured purified alcoholic beverage,” could contain up to 11.9 per cent alcohol, the equivalent of about four standard alcoholic drinks or portions, such as four regular beers or four five-ounce glasses of wine.

Under the new regulations, a drink of the same size can’t contain more than 4.5 per cent alcohol by volume, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, shown speaking in Vancouver in April 2019, said her priority was getting potent, sugary, premixed drinks of the shelves as quickly as possible. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

“Basically what we’ve done, we’ve minimized the amount of alcohol is permitted in these drinks and also the portion sizes is going to be limited,” Petitpas Taylor told CBC. “So now when people purchase these types of drinks you’ll only have 1.5 portions per container.”

Earlier this year, a Quebec coroner concluded that consuming several cans of the malt-liquor drink FCKD UP contributed to the death of 14-year-old Quebec high school student Athéna Gervais.

In February 2018, Gervais drowned in a small creek behind her high school in the Montreal suburb of Laval after she reportedly drank most of three cans of the beverage, which contained 11.9 per cent alcohol, on her lunch break. Gervais had stolen the cans from a convenience store.

Coroner Martin Larocque said Gervais and her friends drank the equivalent of about 12 glasses of wine in under 30 minutes, with Gervais consuming most of that.

Athéna Gervais’s funeral was on March 9, 2018, in Saint-Félicien, Que. (Radio-Canada)

He also said Health Canada needed to do more to prevent teenagers from consuming the drinks, which use bright colours and vibrant ads to attract young consumers.

The regulations announced Thursday do not address the labelling of such products. Petitpas Taylor said the priority was to get sugary, premixed drinks with high alcohol content off the shelves.

She said labelling was “another conversation, as I’ve indicated, that I’m interested in having.”

In the weeks following Gervais’s death, the company that produces FCKD UP, Geloso Group, halted production and removed cans from store shelves in Quebec, the only province where the drink was sold.

In June 2018, the Quebec government also adopted legislation that limits the alcohol content of the sugary drinks sold in convenience and grocery stores to seven per cent.

In December 2018, Health Canada announced it would take steps to reduce the amount of alcohol allowed in premixed purified alcohol beverages, but didn’t say when the restrictions would be enacted.

A Health Canada analysis published in December 2018 of the potential impact of new regulations found that although provinces and territories outside Quebec supported the new legislation, “many indicated that they were not aware of these types of products being sold in their jurisdictions.”

The exception appears to be Ontario, according to the document, which reads: “the products … are entering stores in Ontario, where there are no such restrictions,” referring to the Quebec legislation that restricts their alcohol content to seven per cent.

Four Loko, an American beverage similar to FCKD UP which has 11.9 per cent alcohol in a 568-millilitre can, had been available at The Beer Store in Ontario, however, The Beer Store told CBC the drink is no longer sold at its outlets.

Health Canada faced criticism following Gervais’s death for not enacting regulations sooner.

Here are the new limits to alcohol content, according to container size:

  • 7.2 per cent in a 355-millilitre container
  • 5.4 per cent in a 473-millilitre container
  • 4.5 per cent in a 568-millilitre container
  • 3.6 per cent in a 710-millilitre container

‘Extremely disappointing’

Hubert Sacy, head of Éduc’alcool, a non-profit that promotes moderate alcohol consumption, says Health Canada’s new regulations don’t go far enough. (Radio-Canada)

Hubert Sacy says he’s not satisfied with Health Canada’s new regulations, calling them “extremely disappointing and totally irresponsible.”

As head of Éduc’alcool, a non-profit that promotes moderate alcohol consumption in Quebec, Sacy and his organization have been petitioning the federal government to restrict the alcohol content of flavoured purified alcoholic beverages since they entered the Quebec market, before Gervais’s death.

Éduc’alcool wanted Health Canada to limit the alcohol percentage per container to the equivalent of one standard drink, but Sacy says the new limits represent the equivalent of 1.5 drinks.

“Obviously, they didn’t listen to anything we said,” Stacy told CBC on Thursday.

Sacy had also pushed for a federal ban on the drinks’ labelling and marketing geared to young people.

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