A Quebec coroner called on public heath authorities to take stronger action to counter the dangers of youth drinking Wednesday as he released his report into the death of a 14-year-old girl who was found dead in a stream behind her school last year.
Martin Larocque concluded that Athena Gervais died of drowning and possible hypothermia in the context of excessive consumption of a sweetened alcoholic beverage.
His report found Gervais consumed most of three 568 ml cans of a beverage called FCKD UP – the equivalent of 12 glasses of wine – in the span of half an hour on Feb. 26, 2018.
She didn’t return to class that afternoon, and her body was found three days later in a stream in a wooded area in Laval, Que.
In his report, Larocque noted that consuming that much alcohol in such a short period of time likely had a devastating effect on Gervais, who weighed only 110 pounds and wasn’t an experienced drinker.
“In view of the low history of alcohol consumption of a girl of that age and that weight, the consequences of such a large consumption in such a period of time could not be otherwise than sudden and unexpected,” he wrote.
Larocque concluded that Gervais likely became disoriented and fell into the stream by accident. He noted that she hadn’t taken her winter jacket and drowned in only two feet of water, with a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit for driving.
“Her cognitive state was so affected by the alcohol consumption that it led to her death,” the coroner concluded.
Quebec and Canadian health authorities have moved to limit the sale and production of sugary, high-alcohol drinks since Gervais’ death.
Geloso Group, the manufacturer of FCKD UP, ceased producing the beverage, and the Quebec government adopted legislation that limits the alcohol content of sugary beverages sold in convenience and grocery stores to seven per cent. By comparison, FCKD UP contained 11.9 per cent.
Health Canada has also proposed new rules that would limit the amount of alcohol in containers under one litre to no more than 1.5 servings, compared to the four servings in FCKD UP and similar drinks.
But in his report and at a later news conference, Larocque said more action is needed to counter the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption in youth.
Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 26, 2017, he said 2,332 people aged 12 to 24 had to be treated for alcohol intoxication – proof of what Larocque called a “real and concerning” public health problem.
He said sugary beverages pose a particular danger to young people because they’re affordable, sold in colourful cans with flashy displays, can’t be closed once opened and have a high level of sugar that masks the alcohol content.
“The cumulative combination of these factors desensitizes youth to the importance of responsible consumption,” he told the news conference.
Larocque issued a number of recommendations, including that alcohol in containers under one litre be limited to one serving, rather than the 1.5 servings proposed by Health Canada.
He also suggested that alcohol companies should face advertising restrictions regarding the appearance and marketing of products, including a ban on names or slogans that “trivialize excessive alcohol consumption, inebriety or alcohol dependence.”
The coroner’s concerns were echoed by Alain Gervais, Athena’s father, who told reporters he was struck by the “devastating” amount of alcohol found in his daughter’s system.
He said the report would give the necessary ammunition to the fight to keep sugary alcoholic beverages out of the hands of young people like his daughter.
“It’s next to the candy, it’s too accessible,” he said of the three cans his daughter stole on the day of her death. “The advertising is too strong with those products, the bright colours .... (They think) it’s candy, but it’s not candy.”
Gervais said he was satisfied with the Quebec government’s swift actions in the wake of Athena’s death, but he says the federal government has taken too long to ensure stronger rules are in place across Canada.