Wider liquor sales a bad idea

A customer browses wine displayed for sale at a Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) store in Toronto in this file photo.

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If things go the way the signs seem to be pointing, by this time next week Ontario will have announced the sale of alcohol in corner stores across the province.

While budget details are usually a close-held secret, the current provincial government has already telegraphed its intention to loosen regulations around the sale of alcohol. It was a campaign promise made last year and one they seem intent to keep.

Last month, Finance Minister Vic Fideli said, “Our government is actively working to expand the sale of beer and wine to corner stores, box stores, and even more grocery stores.”

The problem is that this policy direction is deeply at odds with both evidence and expert opinion. At the risk of being a buzzkill, I think selling beer and wine in more stores is a really dumb idea. It will cost this province more money in the short and long run, as evidence clearly

The government has been engaging in round tables with interested and expert parties for the last few months. One of those invited to speak was Dr. Robert Kyle, president of the Association of Local Public Health Agencies in Ontario. Kyle is a leader in public health policy in this province and Medical Officer of Health in Durham Region. He spoke on behalf of public health professionals, public health agencies, local boards of health and the Medical Officers of Health across Ontario. I am a public member of the Grey Bruce Board of Health.

In his presentation, Kyle said, “Alcohol is no ordinary commodity. It causes injury, addiction, disease, and social disruption and is one of the leading risk factors for disability and death. Its contributions to liver disease, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, acute alcohol poisoning and various injuries owing to intoxication are well known and evidence of its links to mental health disorders and a range of cancers continues to mount. In fact, a recent study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) estimated that there were over 25,000 hospitalizations in one year in Ontario that were entirely caused by alcohol.”

He continued, “In addition to the personal health impacts, alcohol is a significant factor in the public costs associated with health care, social services, law enforcement and justice, and lost workplace productivity.”

To be blunt, Ontario has a serious alcohol problem. According to the Center for Addiction and Mental Health a significant portion of the population drinking alcohol (81.5 per cent), exceed the low risk drinking guidelines (23.4 per cent), consuming five or more drinks on a single occasion weekly (11.2% per cent), and reporting hazardous or harmful drinking (15.6%).

In addition, Ontario youth (grades 9-12) have concerning levels of alcohol consumption with 69.4 per cent having drunk in the past year, 32.9 per cent binge drinking (five or more drinks), and 27.5 per cent of students reporting drinking at a hazardous level.

Moreover, the direct cost to Ontario taxpayers for healthcare and law enforcement over any benefits received through taxation and profits from the LCBO and The Beer Store sales of alcohol exceeds $465 million.Wouldn’t that be a good place to start fiscal responsibility?

The best way for Ontario to move forward, Kyle says, “… is a comprehensive, provincially led alcohol strategy that can help mitigate the otherwise entirely preventable negative impacts of increased alcohol availability, which include increasing hallway medicine and waste of taxpayers’ money.”

He continues, “It is well-established that increasing alcohol availability is directly related to increased consumption and alcohol-related harms. A comprehensive, evidence-based approach to alcohol policy is therefore critical…”

We have a serious alcohol problem in Ontario. There are clear strategies which can reduce risk, change outcomes and reduce the impact on our healthcare system and our economy in general. Does the provincial government have the guts to give us more than “buck a beer” and selling
alcohol in corner stores? I certainly hope so.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound.