If corner stores can sell us cigarettes and pornography, they should be able to sell us booze

OPINION: The Progressive Conservative government’s commitment to modernizing alcohol sales in Ontario has critics sounding the alarm. But do corner-store beers actually represent a threat to public health?
By Matt Gurney - Published on June 5, 2019
shelves of beer
Premier Doug Ford wants to scrap the province’s agreement with the Beer Store as soon as possible, using legislation to shield Ontario from liability. (Chris Young/CP)

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I can’t resist opening with one of my favourite anecdotes about Ontario’s bizarre system of selling alcohol. A few years ago, I was entertaining an American friend in Toronto. It was her first visit. On a lovely summer night, she proposed that, rather than head off to some bar or restaurant, we simply buy a few beers from a corner store near her hotel and have a relaxing drink together in a nearby city park.

Imagine her surprise when I explained that what she’d proposed was illegal two times over.

I’m sure many Ontarians have had similar experiences with visitors from outside the province. Having to explain why a free people in the 21st century continues to tolerate an alcohol-distribution model rooted in early-20th-century thinking is something that you just get used to. But the Progressive Conservative government wants to make major changes: it says that it will terminate the province’s agreement with the Beer Store — the privately owned entity that controls much of Ontario’s beer sales — and look into loosening restrictions around public drinking. Soon, enjoying a beer or a glass of wine in the park may no longer be against the law.

The proposal is, admittedly, aggressive. In 2015, the then-Liberal government signed a 10-year agreement with the Beer Store; Premier Doug Ford proposes to scrap that agreement as soon as possible, using legislation to shield Ontario from liability. Opponents of Ford’s plan have stated that early-termination costs could run as much as $1 billion, though that figure is, as noted here by TVO.org’s John Michael McGrath, highly questionable (“mostly fantasy,” in his telling). Still, it’s fair to have concerns about the plan on the bases of cost and possible damage to Ontario’s reputation as a reliable business partner.

But there’s another undercurrent to the opposition: the idea that selling beer in convenience stores will leave every corner and alley in Ontario littered with passed-out drunks. An op-ed in the Toronto Star this week makes that point explicitly. In it, physician Hasan Sheikh notes that alcohol-related emergency-room visits jumped 18 per cent after the previous Liberal government put beer and wine in grocery stores. Sheikh, writing about a patient who has a long history of alcoholism, says, “Every once in a while, when a major stressor hits, Bill’s compulsion overwhelms him. In these times, the ease and availability of alcohol is not a matter of convenience, it is a matter of life and death. Quick access to alcohol at a moment of vulnerability can set Bill on a path of self-destruction that leads to months of daily alcohol use, injury to his liver and further strain on his relationship with his wife.”

That’s a tragedy. I think we’ve all known someone like Bill. But Sheikh gives the game away when he notes that Bill has struggled with alcohol “for decades.” That’s a lot longer than beer and wine have been available in our grocery stores.

André Picard, writing in the Globe and Mail, offers a more balanced take. He notes that, while there is some “superficial” evidence that greater access to alcohol can contribute to negative public-health outcomes, Canada’s patchwork of provincial regimes offers no simple answers to questions of availability and harm. “Quebec has allowed convenience-store sales for almost a century,” Picard wrote. “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.”

I did a little research of my own. One of the most obvious public-health dangers of increased access to alcohol is the risk of increased rates of impaired driving. Impaired driving is, of course, not a perfect proxy for the total societal harms of alcohol abuse, but it is a dramatic one, and it’s something that’s tracked.

Statistics Canada tracks police-reported crime every year. Its current figures go through to the end of 2017. I searched specifically for impaired-driving charges in Ontario and looked at the period before 2016 and then at 2016 and 2017. The reason? The Liberals put beer and wine in grocery stores gradually, beginning in December 2015. Was there any increase in impaired driving over the next two years?

No, there wasn’t. There were more impaired-driving charges in Ontario in 2015 than there were the year before, but only by a hundred or so — a rounding error in the context of more than 15,000 charges. In 2016 and in 2017, there were fewer such offences than there were in any other year since 2013. If putting beer and wine in grocery stores did anything, it lowered both the number of charges and the incident rate for impaired driving.

Yes, yes: I know that correlation is not causation. Nor is impaired driving always drunk driving — and, even if it were, it would only be a part of the public-health story. But I offer it to insert a little splash of reality into this increasingly hysterical debate. Ontarians are adults. We live in a free society. And, although more must be done to help the Bills of the world, we can surely do a better job of providing support for those with addictions and mental-health issues while also modernizing a bizarrely outdated sector of our economy.

We already trust corner-store operators to sell us tobacco products. We let them sell explosives (fireworks). They are the primary sales agents for (provincially run!) lotto gambling. And, although it’s been a while since I last checked, I seem to recall hardcore pornography having a place at the tops of magazine racks in convenience stores across the land. Plus, in many rural parts of the province, corner stores already sell alcohol, as special distributors of the LCBO.

I don’t see any reason why these store operators can’t be trusted to sell me a few beers as well as smokes, explosives, lottery tickets, and dirty magazines. And I see even less reason to believe that my fellow Ontarians are incapable of consuming such beer responsibly.

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