Some criticize Alberta bar’s free $20 promotion used to lure students

EDMONTON — At least one Alberta bar is trying to beat the recession — and a law that sets minimum prices to dissuade binge drinking — by offering students cold, hard cash to come in and wet their whistles.

EDMONTON — At least one Alberta bar is trying to beat the recession — and a law that sets minimum prices to dissuade binge drinking — by offering students cold, hard cash to come in and wet their whistles.

Edmonton’s Union Hall is offering students free admission and a crisp $20 on Thursdays before 10 p.m., billing the promotion as “battling back” against minimum prices on alcohol set by the province.

The government says the tactic isn’t illegal and at least a few other bars have tried the same thing.

But several alcohol awareness groups say the strategy is irresponsible and undercuts a law put in place to help prevent people from drinking too much.

Union Hall operating partner Jesse James said since the government regulations came into effect last year, the bar has had to drop such student promotions as 25-cent shooters or free drink coupons

“They’ve really tied our hands promotionally, a little bit,” he said.

“The only thing we can give people, legally … is money. So we’re doing it.”

Lynn Hutchings-Mah, spokesperson for the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, said the minimum price for highballs is $2.75.

Since the bar is offering drinks at $3 a pop, it’s not violating any rules.

“Our policy does not prohibit licensees from giving out cash to customers. The thing is, if the customers want to take the cash and go home, they can.”

She said similar promotions by bars in the past have ended quickly because people were taking the money and leaving.

But Michel Perron, CEO of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, said the extra money could potentially encourage young people to drink more than they originally intended.

“I think it would go against the intent of the minimum price, which was set to curb binge drinking or excessive drinking among individuals,” he said.

“And we know young people have a greater tendency to drink excessively.”

Gladys Shelstad, vice-president for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Edmonton, was shocked to hear that the bar was openly declaring the promotion as a way to get around the mandatory minimums, calling that “irresponsible.”

“They have a responsibility to uphold, and part of that is obeying the law and not trying to find ways of getting around it,” she said.

“We’re supposed to be encouraging these young people not to overdrink, and here they’re trying to promote it.”

The first Thursday the promotion was offered, the bar gave away $7,000 and hit capacity, James said.

People who arrive after 10 p.m. or without a student card aren’t eligible for the giveaway. On the first Thursday, half the people who packed the house did not qualify for the money.

He rejected suggestions that giving away money will encourage binge drinking that the minimum price laws were brought in to prevent.

The bar’s staff is trained to recognize when people become intoxicated and will cut someone off if they’ve had enough, he said.

“We’re not letting people get super out of control,” he said.

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