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FCKD UP: Everything wrong with alcohol policy in Canada


FCKD UP: Everything wrong with alcohol policy in Canada

FCKD UP: Everything wrong with alcohol policy in Canada
May 17, 2018
The tragic death of a Quebec teenager in early March 2018, coincidental with the consumption of FCKD UP, was no accident. The availability of FCKD UP and similar alcoholic beverages is the natural and expected outcome of the current alcohol policy framework in Canada—including, how alcohol is taxed, what types of ingredients are permitted, and the marketing practices that are condoned.

Beverages like FCKD UP are based on inexpensive, high alcohol beer, and typically max out at 11.9% alcohol by volume (ABV). All things being equal, beers at this level of ABV are relatively unpalatable, particularly when produced at the lowest cost. However, there is a potentially lucrative business opportunity if palatability can be improved or otherwise offset at minimal cost. As such, products like FCKD UP start off with inexpensive, high alcohol beer and are infused with inexpensive, post-brewing additives such as sugar and sweeteners and artificial flavours and colours. These ingredients mask the taste of high alcohol beer and enable harmful drinking by making it easy to consume a lot of alcohol, very quickly. FCKD UP also includes additives, such as guarana, that are commonly found in caffeinated energy drinks (CED) to mimic the taste of CEDs, which are primarily marketed towards and consumed by youth and young adults. In contrast, higher quality flavoured beers use whole ingredients (e.g. fruit, herbs, roots) in the brewing process to enhance sweetness and to add flavour and colour. The use of raw ingredients in the brewing process is more expensive and complicated, thus increasing the cost to the producer and consumer.

The economic viability of FCKD UP is further enabled by the way different types of alcohol are taxed in Canada. For instance, spirit- and wine-based coolers are commonplace and essentially have the same composition as sweetened, beer-based products like FCKD UP. However, spirit- and wine-based coolers that exceed 6.9% ABV are subject to a higher excise tax rate. This regulatory quirk increases the cost and limits the marketability of high ABV spirit- and wine-based coolers—this is also incidentally health protective. In contrast, beer and beer-based beverages are not subject to any increase in excise tax rate at higher ABV levels. This loophole allows products like FCKD UP to be profitably sold at very low prices, which substantially increases its appeal to youth and young adults—FCKD UP was sold for $7.50 for two 568 mL cans, or the equivalent of 8 standard drinks.

The marketing of FCKD UP and targeting of youth is also questionable, yet condoned by existing regulations and guidelines (and to some extent, the public). The product name cleverly and unambiguously promises achieving a heightened state of intoxication upon consumption. The letters spelling out FCKD UP on the non-resealable can are inverted such that the correct form is apparent when the can is upside-down—for instance, when one is chugging the product to get highly intoxicated (or FCKD UP). Lastly, advertisements boldly highlighted the high alcohol content and low price of the product in high traffic areas such as bus shelters.

Since the reported death of the Quebec teen, the Government of Canada has committed to taking regulatory action to address harmful alcoholic beverages like FCKD UP and consulting with provinces and territories on the marketing of these products. Products like FCKD UP have managed to fill a market niche by leveraging the availability of cheap, high alcohol beer, tax loopholes, and the use of questionable marketing targeting youth and young adults. Action is urgently needed to address these products in addition to longstanding issues within the alcohol policy framework in Canada. As such, in May 2018, the Ontario Public Health Association endorsed the recommendations put forth by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR), formerly the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.

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