Could imposing a minimum price on alcohol in Quebec curb problem drinking?

Éduc'alcool, a group that promotes responsible consumption, wants the province to impose a minimum price on alcoholic beverages of at least $1.70 per standard drink.

Éduc'alcool says alcoholic drinks sold at low price points make them too easily accessible to young people

Éduc'alcool says beer prices in Quebec are among the lowest in Canada. The group would like to see the minimum price of alcohol set at $1.70 per standard drink. (CBC)

An organization that promotes responsible drinking is calling on the province to set a minimum price on alcohol with the aim of making it harder for young people to get their hands on a drink. 

The proposal is among the recommendations Éduc'alcool will make Tuesday to the National Assembly during hearings on Bill 170. The proposed legislation is aimed at amending the province's liquor laws.

Hubert Sacy, the director of general of the organization, said the price hike recommendation is based the culmination of research in the fields of prevention and public health.

"This is something that is recommended everywhere," he said.

"It doesn't mean that we should raise the price of alcohol, we should only raise the price of low, cheap alcohol that is available so easily to young people and vulnerable consumers."

The group would like to see the price of a standard drink set at a minimum of $1.70. It says a bottle of wine should be at least $9.50 and a case of 24 beers should cost at least $40.

Currently the province sets the minimum price for beer, which varies depending on the alcohol content.

Sacy said it's among the lowest minimum prices in Canada and often skirted by cross promotions or discounts at dépanneurs and grocery stores. Éduc'alcool wants a minimum price standard to be applied to all kinds of alcohol.

Consequences for the vulnerable?

However, there is concern that hiking the price of cheap alcohol will push people struggling with addiction to cheaper options.

Matthew Pearce, CEO of the Old Brewery Mission, a non-profit agency that offers shelter and other services for the homeless, said a higher price tag could force vulnerable people to drink things like mouthwash and hand cleaners or other products that contain alcohol but aren't meant for consumption.

"They've got a disease that requires that they consume alcohol, so [the price] is not going to stop them — it's going to drive them to other alternatives," Pearce told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

He pointed to some of the problems that arose when prices on cigarettes were hiked in an attempt to curb use.

"It creates a black market and most of the clients of the Mission are consumers of the cigarettes that are in the black market," he said.

Cheaply produced, homemade alcohol sold to those who are addicted but can't pay legal prices could be the end result, he said.

"I don't think price is really the issue. I think it's a matter of finding ways to control consumption," he said, pointing to so-called wet shelters and other initiatives that are aimed at assisting people with harm reduction.

Sacy said there is evidence that shows a swift reaction in young and vulnerable consumers when minimum prices are raised.

He said the law should reflect what would have the greatest benefit to the most people.

"It may have a small impact, but are we going to sacrifice a whole generation of young drinkers and all the vulnerable drinkers in our society because of a small number of homeless people?"

"We say that homeless people should be taken care of, but not through the price of alcohol."

With files from CBC Daybreak and CBC reporter Angelica Montgomery