Making it easier for Ontarians to drink more isn't a good idea

March 20, 2021

As 7-Eleven applies to serve beer and wine in 61 stores across Ontario, spare a thought for alcohol policy experts.

Around the world, scholars have done extensive research into drinking and its effects. It’s important work: Alcohol, while often enjoyable, is not good for us. It’s addictive. It’s linked to cancer and some 200 health problems. It causes traffic accidents, including fatal ones. It can be hard on relationships and families. It’s associated with violence. It sucks money from household budgets.

There’s a reason no one ever says, “I wish I’d had more to drink last night.”

Looking at the evidence, researchers have found ways to reduce the harm from alcohol. One such way is to make it less convenient to buy. Fewer outlets mean fewer sales. That’s what the research says.

For most of the 20th century, provincial policy recognized this. The number of outlets selling takeout alcohol in Ontario was strictly limited, and the shopping experience was deliberately joyless. The point was to curb drinking, not encourage it.

That changed in the 1990s. Fearful of privatization, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario became a glittering modern retailer, boosting sales with advertising. In a nod to harm reduction, the LCBO and the private Beer Store still operated only a small number of stores, but in time, Queen’s Park caved to business pressure and licensed more private outlets. By 2019, Ontarians could buy booze-to-go in 2,500 places. That included private wine stores, grocery stores, LCBO “agency” stores, and onsite stores at breweries, wineries and distilleries.

This was not enough for the Doug Ford government. In 2019, then-finance minister Vic Fedeli bemoaned the shortage of places to buy, pointing enviously at Quebec and its 8,000 retail outlets.

Fedeli vowed he’d have beer and wine in convenience stores by the end of the year. To add to the festive atmosphere, he cut the base price for beer to $1, allowed alcohol to be sold from 9 a.m., OK’d drinking at “tailgate parties” outside sporting events, and let municipalities allow drinking in public parks. In 2020, after COVID-19 hit, the province let restaurants sell takeout alcohol with food.

When it comes to alcohol, the government’s policy is as clear as a gin and tonic: Have a drink. Have a few.

While Fedeli’s pledge to have beer and wine in convenience stores is on ice thanks to a dispute with the Beer Store, 7-Eleven may have found a work-around. As part of its plan to sell beer and wine, the company aims to position its stores as (wait for it) restaurants, creating new dining areas for in-store drinking.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario may approve the application, or it may not. But whatever happens, the Ford government has opened the floodgates to increased alcohol sales.

It’s all in the name of personal choice and convenience. That might be fine if the costs of alcohol were borne only by those who consume it, but they aren’t. The profits from alcohol go to the sellers, but the costs are paid by society overall: in lower productivity on the job, in higher expenses for health care, policing, and other services, and in lives damaged and lost.

Opponents of a public health approach to alcohol point to the failure of Prohibition as justification for wide-open alcohol sales. But those are not the only two options: If we choose, we can design alcohol policy in a way that recognizes the public appetite for drinking while minimizing its ill effects.

Crafting such a strategy starts with evidence-based research. It starts with listening to the experts.

Randy Robinson is Ontario Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. This piece was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen