Booze and cannabis may be our best weapons in the battle against vaccine hesitancy


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No vaccination, no booze — Quebec’s new scheme targeted at the vaccine hesitant certainly gives a whole new meaning to “shots all around.”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/01/2022 (393 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

No vaccination, no booze — Quebec’s new scheme targeted at the vaccine hesitant certainly gives a whole new meaning to “shots all around.”

But something else may be at work here — a gamble that vaccination reluctance in Canada can be tackled with some of the same tools that governments have used to levy unpopular taxes. What works on getting citizens to open their wallets, in other words, might get them to roll up their sleeves.

Anti-vaxxers aren’t anti-taxers, necessarily. But COVID-19’s repeated waves have sent all governments scrambling to figure out how to get citizens doing something they don’t want to do, for the cause of the greater good. Like paying taxes, or getting multiple vaccinations.

Ryan Remiorz - THE CANADIAN PRESS A customer leaves an SAQ outlet on Jan. 6, 2022 in Deux-Montagnes, Que. The Quebec government announced that vaccine passports will be required to enter all government liquor stores and cannabis outlets. It’s a gamble that vaccine reluctance in Canada can be tackled with some of the same tools that governments have used to levy unpopular taxes, Susan Delacourt writes.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has mused aloud that the country may have to start talking about mandatory vaccinations, which would basically make shots in the arm another duty of citizenship, in line with filing an annual income-tax return.

In the interim, though, Quebec has done its own bold experiment in behaviour modification, by making vaccinations mandatory for purchases of alcohol and cannabis at government-run outlets. Where did Quebec get the idea this would work? It surely isn’t a coincidence that these are the same commodities (along with tobacco) that governments use regularly to raise revenues — the so-called “sin taxes.”

Sure, people grumble about paying more for booze and smokes, but by and large, they go along with the tax hikes, budget after budget. Quebec has clearly figured that the same will be true if mandatory vaccination was also attached to the high price of a good time. Before you down that tray of shots, get your shot.

It has been fascinating to watch politicians at all levels trying out their various pitches to prod citizens toward vaccination queues. Everyone is trying to figure out where to use the carrot or how to wield a stick, in the popular parlance.

There was the contrast last week, for instance, between Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which prompted rounds of commentary on political persuasion strategies.

O’Toole talked “accommodation” of the vaccine-hesitant, while Trudeau was accused of practising demonization, talking about how the unvaccinated were making vaccinated citizens angry.

Premiers such as Doug Ford in Ontario or Jason Kenney in Alberta are sticking more to the numbers, peppering their public remarks with all the stats on how the Omicron variant is toughest on the unvaccinated.

Before anyone gets too focused on what politicians should or shouldn’t be saying to increase vaccination rates, we might remember that their influence on the persuasion front is extremely limited. Even among the general public, very few people would leap out of their chairs to make a vaccination appointment because a politician said to do so. Among the vaccine hesitant, political lectures count for less than nothing: distrust of government goes hand in hand with distrust of what’s in the needle, as any glance at social media would tell you.

Not all the hesitancy revolves around hostility to authority or science, though. Trudeau did aim some of his arguments last week at people who may worry at the reaction they would get if they’re only showing up now for their first shot. No one’s going to shame you, the prime minister said.

“I can tell you that that front-line health worker who’s giving you your first dose of the vaccine, even now in January 2022, will be immensely pleased to be able to give you that first dose of vaccine even today, because they’d much rather be giving you an injection of vaccine than intubating you in an ICU,” the prime minister said.

The fact that Trudeau zeroed in on this potential obstacle to getting vaccinated — fear of shame, being outed as a procrastinator — told me that there has to be some research here on what’s going on within that 15 per cent of the population that hasn’t yet had a first shot.

Quebec’s experiment, from early reports, found its mark among this group. Health Minister Christian Dubé reported on Friday that appointments for first doses had increased from 1,500 per day to more than 6,000 — even before the mandatory vaccination requirement kicked in for alcohol and cannabis stores.

People will debate whether this measure is a carrot or a stick. What’s more intriguing, at least to me, is whether Quebec and other governments are using what they have learned from other government-citizen transactions — taxation for instance — to close the deal on getting the population vaccinated. For now, sin taxes have been turned into a pandemic virtue: that’s as good a reason as any for shots all around.

Susan Delacourt is an Ottawa-based columnist covering national politics for the Star. Reach her via email: or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt

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