Ontario must rethink alcohol sales
Over the past five years, provincial legislative changes have made alcohol more accessible in Ontario. The structure of alcohol distribution has now become increasingly permissive due to the loosening of historical controls on a harmful substance. The trajectory of alcohol policy continues to become increasingly adverse to the health and well-being of Ontarians. Consider the following recent developments:
In 2011, changes to the Liquor License Act included the significant expansion of licensed areas within festivals or public events, the provision of ‘all-inclusive’ vacation packages in Canada that included alcohol, and the allowance for other businesses, such as book stores and salons, to apply for alcohol licensing.
In 2013, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) announced their plans for significant expansion across the province. According to LCBO spokesperson Heather McGregor, the aim was to increase access points, and “to enhance the customer experience”. In addition to the inception of new and bigger stores, this plan has contributed to significant growth in sales.
In 2014, Vintner’s Quality Alliance (VQA) wine became legal for sale at Ontario Farmers’ markets as a pilot project. With Farmers’ Markets more than doubling their number in the last quarter century in Ontario, the inclusion of wine into this sector creates many new alcohol access points for consumers.
Most recently and alarmingly, in April 2015, a plan was unveiled to reform alcohol sales and distribution in Ontario, beginning with the sale of beer in 450 grocery stores. Premier Wynne indicated the decision was financially motivated, stating the announcement was “a good day for our economy and for job creation.” In December 2015, 58 grocery stores began to sell beer throughout Ontario, with many to follow. This will further expand alcohol access, and normalize alcohol among regular foodstuffs.
This series of changes has occurred in part due the widespread acceptance of alcohol in our culture; it is so entrenched that related harms are often ignored. Increased alcohol availability brings with it increased harms, each a major expense to society and government. The harms of alcohol include an increased risk for chronic diseases such as cancer and liver disease; elevated risk for heart disease and stroke; crime and violence; alcohol dependence; injuries and hospitalizations; and tragically, deaths relating to disease, violence or impaired judgment.
In its report on how to reduce harms from alcohol, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health stated that regulating the availability of alcohol, along with controlled sales via centralized channels, is a key strategy for reducing consumption and harm. The strategy is evidence-based. Where alcohol privatization and deregulation has occurred elsewhere in Canada, alcohol availability has risen significantly, with subsequent increases in consumption and harm. In British Columbia, the Provincial Health Officer reported that partial privatization in 2002 led to a 40% increase in the number of liquor stores over a six year period, paired with a province-wide increase in alcohol consumption of 8%. Furthermore, a 2011 study from British Columbia published in Addiction reveals the direct relationship between rising density of liquor and beer stores and increased alcohol-related deaths, indicating that “a 20% rise in private store density increased alcohol-related mortality by 3.25%”.
It is possible that the Ontario government believes taxation revenue from increasing alcohol access offsets or exceeds the related costs. This is not true. A 2012 report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse quotes 2002-2003 data, indicating that health care, enforcement and other direct costs from alcohol cost the government $2.4 billion in Ontario. This same report compares these costs to total alcohol revenue [Table 6] indicating a net loss of over $450 million (in a single year).
Losses from alcohol-related harm are being externalized to the province’s law enforcement and health care systems, whose budgets are the responsibility of the Ontario taxpayer. Aiming to sell more alcohol through heightened availability is a self-defeating economic strategy. Beyond dollars, the price of increased alcohol consumption is paid for in incarcerations, illness, and impossible-to-measure units of human suffering.
Ontario’s new alcohol strategy
In September 2015, a coalition of health and partner organizations called for the development of a Provincial Alcohol Strategy, their aim being a comprehensive approach to balance economic interests with public health and safety. The government responded with a recent announcement to design a multi-component Alcohol Strategy for Ontario.
This was welcome news; however, it is only a beginning. It remains to be seen if the province will ultimately cease stimulation of sectors within the alcohol industry which furthers distribution, sales and consumption. If they continue, they would do so in disregard of clear evidence of commensurate costs, and damage to the lives of Ontarians.
Doug Ironside is a public health nurse who provides alcohol-based education and harm reduction messaging to diverse audiences. He is a primary writer/editor of Thirst and a special consultant to the Ontario Public Health Association’s Alcohol Work Group.