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Addiction, law enforcement professionals in Ontario discuss legal tailgating concerns

In this Oct. 27, 2012, file photo, a group of University of Florida football fans tailgate outside the stadium before the start of an NCAA college football game against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla. Ontario's government has announced it plans to legalize similar parties in the province as of summer 2019. (Photo from AP Photo/Stephen Morton, File)

Ontario’s provincial government has announced it plans to legalize tailgating parties outside sports venues in the province, and experts in substance abuse and law enforcement are voicing concern about the plan.

The plan was announced on April 8 along with several other alcohol reform initiatives, like extending the hours of alcohol service, which are expected to take effect by summer 2019.

Under the new tailgating law, eligible professional, semi‐professional and postsecondary sporting events will be allowed to apply for tailgate event permits. The government hasn’t said whether participants will be allowed to bring their own alcoholic drinks or if they will be restricted to purchasing drinks from licensed vendors.

A section in the 2019 budget devoted to alcohol reform touts the plan as a way to improve consumer choice and empower adult consumers to make their own responsible decisions.

But Dr. Catherine Paradis, senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre in Substance use and Addiction, fears the initiative will do more public harm than good.

“If everyone was well familiar with Canada’s drinking guidelines, and was able to drink accordingly to those guidelines…and limit their consumption to two drinks, then that would be great,” Paradis said. “But human beings are human beings, and if you present them with free or cheap booze, it’s not gonna happen.”

According to a report in the Oxford University Press, a study published in 2009 estimated that approximately 1,800 deaths, 600,000 injuries, and 97,000 sexual assaults related to excessive alcohol consumption occurred annually in the U.S. from 1998 to 2005.

The report pointed out that tailgating has been shown to have similar student drinking rates to other days associated with high levels of drinking, such as Halloween and New Year’s Eve. Paradis, whose team has studied alcohol-related youth hospital admissions in Quebec, finds this especially troubling.

Through her study of ER admission rates in Sherbrooke, Que., Paradis found that Halloween was the day of the year that saw the most youth, between the ages of 12 and 24, being admitted to emergency rooms for alcohol-related emergencies.

“If tailgating is anything like Halloween…that raises red flags and it’s a cause for concern,” Paradis said.

“We’re concerned with acute risk, meaning injuries, accidents, violence, sexual violence, the risk of acute intoxication that can lead to ER admission. And of course, driving under the influence.”

Paradis explained that “pre-drinking” events like tailgate parties are risky because, given an opportunity to drink cheap alcohol before entering a venue where the same drinks are sold at a marked-up price, participants will often drink large volumes in a short period of time, in order to feel the effects at a lower cost.

“People drink fast, they want to drink as much as possible before going to a bar, or in this case a stadium where alcohol will be more expensive,” she said. “So they’re drinking too fast, they’re very often mixing all sorts of things.”

While she argued that legalizing tailgating events goes against the World Health Organization’s recommendation to restrict access to publicly available alcohol in order to reduce harm, she did offer some advice for those responsible for Ontario’s legal tailgating framework.

Paradis said officials can regulate alcohol consumption at tailgating events by enforcing open container laws, and discourage intoxicated driving by increasing the frequency of roadside alcohol checks by police.

She also suggested officials set up a monitoring system to keep track of indicators of the initiative’s success or harm including arrests, reports of mischief and emergency department visits that coincide with tailgating events.

“They should monitor those indicators to assess the evolution or the impact of this new legislation, and then react accordingly to the situation, to what the data shows them,” she said. “It’s not that complicated to do.”

The policing perspective

Joe Couto, spokesman person for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said it’s too early to critique the government’s legal tailgating plan. His main concern for now is that police departments across Ontario are supported when the legislation comes into effect.

Couto said police aren’t concerned about what people consume legally at a licensed event, but police involvement could change at the point that someone who is excessively drunk is denied access to an event.

“On first read it could pose an additional strain on law enforcement, in terms of the access and what happens if the access [to an event] is denied,” he said.

“We’ve heard government spokespersons talk about treating adults like adults. Well, adults make bad decisions when it comes to alcohol and other products.”

Couto said he has not been contacted by anyone from the ministry regarding the tailgating initiative yet, but that he is optimistic the province will consult the OACP before the law changes.

When the province does reach out to law enforcement experts for advice, he knows what they are likely to hear.

“It’s very important that our officers are supported when they are required to enforce changing laws,” Couto said. “We’re going to be looking at training, we’re going to be looking at education, and we’re going to need the Government of Ontario’s help in those areas.”

“So hopefully that’s going to be part of the conversation.”

Government response

In response to concerns raised by Paradis and Couto, Robert Gibson, press secretary for Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said the government has appointed Ken Hughes, former chair of Alberta Health Services, as special advisor to the project.

“We remain committed to letting responsible adults make the choices that are best for them,” Gibson said in an email.

“The safe, responsible sale and consumption of alcohol in Ontario is and will continue to be a top priority for our government,” Gibson added. “We want to ensure any proposed improvements would uphold the health and safety of our communities and our roads.”