Your average street alcoholic might not be juiced on booze at all. Sometimes they’re high on simple mouthwash sold at any pharmacy or grocery store.
“When somebody goes in at 7 o’clock in the morning, shakin’, rattlin’ and rollin’, they’re obviously not going to go gargle for their bad breath,” said Judy Lightening, Salvation Army’s shelter services manager.
Working at the Sally Ann, Lightening sees the effects of Listerine on the city’s homeless.
“They can be walking around, making perfect sense one minute and then it hits them and they are completely in a blackout. They have no clue what they’re doing. I’ve talked to the boys and they say it gets to the point where they prefer Listerine over [alcohol] because it’s a very different high.”
But she can’t recall a specific Listerine-related incident.
“It affects them all the same,” said Lightening. “It’s a gradual addiction, then they’re addicted to it. They get to the point they’ve got it in their sleeves, they drink it right at the shelter. They’re just out of it. They forget where they are, they forget what they’re doing.”
The high comes from the ethanol, said Pat Living, spokesperson for Health and Social Services.
Some even keep drinking the mouthwash until they die, said Lightening.
Those who do manage to get off it often relapse because they fall back into the wrong crowd.
It’s social drinking, except with mouthwash.
Original Listerine contains 26.9 per cent alcohol and sells for about $8 for one litre. Shoppers often has their Life brand original mouthwash, with the same alcohol content as Listerine, on sale for $1.99.
One litre of Bailey’s would cost $38 and contains only 17 per cent alcohol. That’s almost five times the price of Listerine but only two-thirds the alcohol.
But people don’t do Listerine to get more bang for their buck, said Jeff Howard, executive director of Salvation Army in Whitehorse.
“A lot of people think that they use it as a substitute because it’s cheaper and it’s more accessible and I think it starts out that way, then it becomes this whole new thing.”
He said it’s to get a high different from other alcohol and drugs.
So if the alcohol in Listerine is causing so many problems, why is it in there?
According to the brand’s website, the alcohol helps the mouthwash’s essential oils fight plaque faster.
But that idea leaves Medicine Chest Pharmacy’s owner with a dirty taste in her mouth.
The alcohol has no benefit and they would never recommend Listerine to their clients, said Tracee Vickerman.
That’s part of the reason they stopped selling it. There were also problems with theft.
“It just seemed to not get bought but it would go missing,” said Vickerman.
Other stores, like the city’s Shoppers Drug Marts, keep the original flavour behind the counter. It’s the most popular among Listerine-aholics because it contains more alcohol than the other flavours with 21.6 per cent alcohol.
“It’s the initiative of the store to control that,” said Howard. “If the drug store’s taking those kinds of steps, I think that’s excellent.”
Lightening, however, believes the territory needs to adopt more strict measures.
“This doesn’t become discrimination. This becomes applying the rules to everything containing alcohol,” she said.
She has talked to Superstore managers who say they have 18-year-old cashiers who won’t refuse to sell Listerine because they worry the customer will get violent.
But Superstore keeps the original flavour behind the counter and won’t sell any product to someone who appears to be intoxicated.
“Superstore is our big problem. We all know that they hit Superstore first thing in the morning. That’s the known fact and they either steal it or buy it, depending on the state of their finances,” said Lightening.
Even if they don’t steal it, buying it for consumption is illegal.
Mouthwash containing alcohol is not technically liquor. However, if it’s sold as a beverage, the vendor could be charged with an offence under Section 85 of the Liquor Act. The business could be charged up to $5,000. The buyer can also be charged up to $2,000 and/or six months imprisonment.
“This is not liquor, but it turns into liquor for the purpose of the assent,” said Virginia Labelle, vice-president of the Yukon Liquor Corporation.
She has been with the board since 2004 and said she has not seen the RCMP deal with any mouthwash-related cases.
“The RCMP are liquor inspectors under our act so normally it would be up to the RCMP to enforce something like this,” she said.
By putting the product behind the pharmacy counter and using discretion when selling it to people, some businesses are also doing their part.
By having it behind the counter, vendors can control how much Listerine they sell, said a pharmacist who remained unnamed due to the company’s strict media relations policy.
“If somebody bought one one day and they come in the next, we don’t sell to them anymore. So we try to limit how much they get.”
Her solution: a better treatment facility. But in the meantime she tries to warn people about the dangers.
“We can try and educate people but they don’t want to listen. We can only tell them so much.”
Contact Larissa Robyn Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org