Over the weekend, Conservative MPPs in Ontario tweeted painfully cheesy messages touting their support for expanding beer and wine sales in convenience stores.
Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, for example, posed for photos in a number of stores in his riding and attached comments such as: “If you’re picking up some chips and dip at Anthony’s store on Highway 17 east of North Bay, wouldn’t it be nice to grab some beer or a bottle of wine too? We hear you!”
The orchestrated campaign follows the provincial government’s promise to tear up a contract with the Beer Store which allowed them to expand sales beyond their current 450 outlets into some grocery stores.
The Beer Store is an odd duck. Many people assume it is a government-run agency, but it’s actually a consortium of big brewers such as Molson, Labatt and Sleeman, which controls almost $3.6-billion in annual beer sales in the province. (Other alcohol-based products, as well as beer, are sold in the government-owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario, while recreational cannabis is also sold in private retail outlets.)
Much ink – and probably beer – has been spilled debating whether Ontarians desperately want or need beer and wine in corner stores, and how much it will cost for the province to renege on a contract.
Yet, the issue that should most concern us is the potential health effects of making alcohol more readily available.
Critics of the Ford government have issued warnings that making beer more easily accessible with “privatization” of sales in corner stores will have dire public-health consequences. (But, again, Beer Store outlets are private, even though they are Victorian-looking.)
Research shows, at least superficially, that the greater the availability of alcohol, the greater the rates of problem drinking and health harms. But where beer is sold is just one of many factors that influence consumption habits and related problems.
Price controls, age restrictions, hours of operation of stores, cultural mores all matter as much, if not more, than the point of sale.
A 2017 report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), Alcohol Harm in Canada, shows how complex this issue can be.
Canada has a patchwork of alcohol-related rules and regulations, and the data reveal many paradoxes. Take Quebec, which has the most liberal policies. Beer and wine are available in every dépanneur; the legal drinking age is 18; people can drink legally in parks, and bring their own wine or beer to some restaurants.
Quebec has allowed convenience-store sales for almost a century. In 1921, the Beer Workers’ Union fought to have the “champagne of the people” excluded from post-Prohibition liquor regulations.
While Quebec has a higher rate of “heavy drinking” than Ontario, it has significantly lower rates of hospitalization for alcohol-related harms.
In Canada, the most extensive harms of alcohol are felt in the Far North, which has some of the most restrictive laws about access.
Another paradox is that higher-income men are the biggest consumers of alcohol, yet poor men suffer the most damage from its consumption. It’s a reminder that socio-economic inequities do a lot more harm than any particular substance.
As the CIHI report states, the relationship between availability of alcohol and harm “generally does not follow the expected pattern.” In other words, don’t make assumptions, and don’t assume one policy in itself will influence public health.
Because alcohol is widely available, we assume it is safer than other drugs. Yet, it is responsible for more than 5,000 deaths and 77,000 hospitalizations in Canada annually.
We have to remember that while making beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks more widely available can have negative health effects, prohibition does a lot of damage, too.
One thing that is clear from research is that the greatest impact on alcohol consumption comes from pricing policies. The cheaper alcohol is, the more people consume. Yet we don’t talk about the benefits of high taxes or floor prices.
That’s why buck-a-beer policies and rhetoric should concern us much more than where products are sold.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, in his weekend tweets, said “we’re going to put people ahead of beer profits,” with the tag line “cheers to choice and convenience.”
Most people drink responsibly, so making beer and wine purchases convenient is not a bad thing in itself. But we need to ensure that in the enthusiasm to humble Big Beer, we don’t forget the need to minimize the collateral damage, the potential health and social harms.