In British Columbia, the discussion about liquor laws has historically been about morality and social good.
The Victorian era saw the rise of the temperance movement, and the social and political campaign ultimately prompted prohibition, banning the alcohol that the movement blamed for society’s ills.
In B.C., prohibition officially lasted just four years. The rationale that finally made it palatable during the First World War – our boys are sacrificing over there so we should be sacrificing over here – crumbled when the war closed, and the province passed the Government Liquor Act in 1921.
But prohibition’s legacy endured. The act placed liquor laws under strict government control to assuage moral queasiness. The drinking age was set at 21 and drinking in public was banned. Those who wanted to purchase alcohol first had to buy a $5 annual permit.
Last week, the province kicked off a review of what it characterized as B.C.’s “outdated and inefficient liquor laws.” The government will launch a website in September that lets members of the public share their views, an element that was missing when the province last comprehensively reviewed liquor policy in 1999. The B.C. Liberals have said they want to bring in a new act next spring.
Loosening liquor laws is a bold gambit, both because of long-ago history and recent events. It was just two years ago that Vancouver received an international black eye due to an alcohol-fuelled hockey riot.
Despite that outburst, which was prompted by the hometown Canucks losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, a recent study by the Centre for Addictions Research of BC found the province is a leader when it comes to reducing alcohol-related harms.
The study found B.C. tied with Alberta when it comes to policies that restrict the physical availability of alcohol, trailing only Ontario. B.C. tied Ontario for top spot on policies regulating alcohol marketing and advertising.
B.C. has a legal drinking age of 19, while its neighbour Alberta is 18 (Manitoba and Quebec also have a limit of 18). Quebec allows alcohol sales in grocery stores, which B.C. does not.
The comprehensive review is far different from the patchwork solutions British Columbians have seen in recent years, when individual problems – such as having liquor in theatres, or bringing a bottle of wine to a restaurant – were solved only after they surfaced, leading to legislative changes.
Some say B.C. has come a long way since prohibition and should tread carefully with its new act, since there are now, as there were then, health and safety aspects to consider.
But those who’ve long complained B.C.’s liquor laws are draconian see this as an ideal opportunity for the province to grow up, to shed the legacy of the nearly century-old act, and to join jurisdictions in Europe and the United States that have adopted more liberal policies when it comes to alcohol.
Since he opened his Vancouver convenience store in December, Tim Johnstone has routinely been asked by his Baylor’s Groceteria customers where they can find beer.
Mr. Johnstone, who previously worked in the hospitality industry for 35 years, mostly as a chef, said when the government website is launched he’ll file a submission requesting that stores such as his be allowed to sell alcohol.
“I just feel that our laws are kind of backwards,” he said in an interview. “People are adult enough to make decisions on drinking alcohol. If they’re of legal age and they’re not impaired, they should have the option of purchasing a beer with their groceries. … The rest of the world seems to have gotten along just fine.”
In its announcement last week, the province listed some of the complaints it’s already heard from residents when it comes to liquor laws. One example was not allowing minors who are accompanied by a parent or guardian into pubs that serve food during daytime hours.
A second example was not allowing wine and other local liquor to be sold at farmers’ markets. That point will be front and centre when the Modernize Wine Association of BC makes its submission, says Frank Haddad, the organization’s executive director.
Mr. Haddad said allowing wine sales at farmers’ markets would help both wineries and the markets themselves.
“The small boutique wineries, fruit wineries, it just gives them another market that they don’t have,” he said.
Mr. Haddad said he’s “very optimistic” the review will bring meaningful change, but he noted there are some caveats to consider. The province has said government revenue must be maintained or increased, and health and social harms caused by liquor must be minimized.
When the public submissions are made, Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of BC, knows his arguments will run counter to those who want easier access, the right to drink in public, lower pricing, and even a lowered drinking age of 18.
The centre’s recently released report said B.C. should increase minimum prices by $1.50 a drink at liquor stores, and $3 for bars and restaurants. The report, in the works for three years, also said the province should explore ways to further restrict the number of liquor outlets, limit their hours and consider raising the drinking age to 21.
Mr. Stockwell said he understands many people want convenient access to alcohol. But he said studies have shown instances of problem drinking go up when alcohol is available in supermarkets and convenience stores.
“Competition will drive prices down, and increase consumption. It’s the most efficient way of delivering alcohol, is to not regulate its availability,” he said.
Mr. Stockwell said he recently read a study that found the number of hospital visits for 18-year-olds went up in jurisdictions that had recently lowered their drinking age to that level.
“There’s a lot of laws we can get rid of … things that aren’t important,” he said. “But focus on what is important. Use the best evidence, and use a modern, efficient regulatory system that balances convenience with what’s really important to reduce the harmful outcomes.”
Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said the current liquor system works, but needs an upgrade. He said his association will push for a number of things, including the improvement of the licensing process. He also pointed to inspections and shared the story of a restaurant owner who recently had to purchase new bar stools because the inspector wanted the seats in the lounge area to be a different colour than those in the food-primary area.
Mr. Tostenson said he is involved with a café on Vancouver’s poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside that trains people to work in restaurants and in kitchens, and he’s conscious of the destruction alcohol can cause. But he said many people simply aren’t in that boat.
“We’ve got to get away from this [perspective of] ‘We are going to protect you’ [and move] to ‘99 per cent of the people are responsible and will do the proper thing,’” he said.
He described the decision by the province to launch the review as “bold.”
“I think we’re going to come out of this in a much more modern and contemporary viewpoint,” he said, “and we’re going to have some common-sense things done.”