Ontario’s Booze Problem

by Stephen Beaumont

Ontario Premier Doug Ford seems obsessed with booze.

Truly, the man can’t stop releasing initiatives connected to the beverage alcohol industry, from the buck-a-beer fiasco of his administration’s early days to the recent budget measures aimed at, among other things drinks-related, allowing bars to open earlier and legalizing the pre-sporting event parking lot parties known as ‘tailgates.’ And with every announcement, the media jumps on board to help make these minor matters into major ones.

(Hey, I just had a thought! Since the media always seems to pounce upon these proclamations, maybe the whole point of them is to distract us from more serious matters. Do ya think?)

Now, a lot of people are saying that, regardless of whether you love or hate the current government, these moves are ridiculously overdue, considering the antiquated alcohol retailing system in place in Canada’s most populace province. And given that they are undeniable steps forward, even if tiny ones, it is not surprising that trade groups like the Ontario Craft Brewers fall over themselves heaping praise upon the government’s efforts.

Equally unsurprising, however, is the backlash from public health advocates, such as the view displayed in a recent op-ed column by physician Daniel Myran in The Globe and Mail, entitled ‘Ontario has an Alcohol Crisis. The Ford Government is Making it Worse.’

Thing is, all sides are missing what could be the biggest step towards the modernization of alcohol consumption in Ontario, one that would benefit consumers, satisfy – admittedly, to a limited degree – those who decry the negative health effects of alcohol and help small business – that last point supposedly a cornerstone of the Ford government’s mandate. Allow me to explain.

As most reasonable people understand, the health issue where booze is concerned is not the enjoyment of a beer or two from time to time, but its persistent and/or intense abuse. The consequences of such drinking patterns typically arrive in one of two ways, either the breakdown of the body’s natural defenses in the case of the former or injuries resulting from the latter. A core preventative for both is oversight.

And by ‘oversight’ I am not talking about what is often called The Nanny State, but rather that provided by your friendly neighbourhood bartender.

Bars are the best places for people to drink, period. In cities, at least, they are usually easy to access and regardless of location they are staffed by people who by law need to be trained to spot and address alcohol abuse. The problem is that they are also expensive, not just because bar owners pay sometimes exorbitant rents, particularly in city centres, but also, perhaps principally because bars pay the same prices for their beer, wine and spirits as do the rest of us, sometimes even more! As a result, a beer that costs a couple of bucks in the LCBO is sold for three or four times that in a bar, pricing that encourages people to drink in the unsupervised environment of home.

The solution, then, is to allow bars to buy their booze more cheaply: Reduce the taxes bars have to pay on all alcohol and thus eliminate the double taxation we pay as customers; allow suppliers to offer bulk purchase deals; and stop forcing bars to buy certain brands only from the Beer Store. This would allow the bars to lower prices and make drinking in them – under the supervision of a trained professional – more affordable. As bar drinking thus grows, the government would be able to claw back some of its lost wholesale tax through the increase in the amount of sales tax paid by a larger consumer base.

The end result? Bar ownership becomes more viable. Bar patronage becomes more affordable. And, in theory, at least, increased oversight reduces the number of instances of alcohol abuse. Win-win-win. You’re welcome, Mr. Ford.