Dan Malleck is an associate professor at Brock University and the author of Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario and When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has a strange fixation on beer these days.
From before the election, through to his first budget, he has proposed a range of measures designed to treat Ontarians “like adults” when it comes to liquor laws, advocating “buck a beer”; changing opening hours for beer and liquor stores and licensed retailers; allowing municipalities to legalize drinking in unlicensed public spaces, such as parks; allowing tailgate parties; and, most controversial of all, at least judging by criticism in the media, tearing up the contract with the Beer Store to make way for beer (and maybe wine) in corner stores. He is clearly in a liberalizing mood when it comes to booze.
With all this change, should Ontarians be concerned? It depends on your perspective.
The current liquor laws in Ontario can be traced back to the early years of Confederation. Although drinking was part of socialization, celebration and community, a significant cohort of Ontarians saw drinking too much as causing social disorder and economic danger, especially among the working class.
In the 1870s, these concerns led the government to alter the way liquor licences were distributed. It reduced the number of licences granted to taverns and saloons and placed the authority for issuing licences and inspecting premises in the hands of provincial appointees.
Yet, these changes were based on the overconsumption of spirits such as rum and whisky, which were cheap, easily available and often the drink of choice. Spirits, not beer and wine, were usually the culprits.
From that point, liquor consumption became a concern of the provincial government. In Ontario, the Liberal government under Oliver Mowat paid lip service to prohibitionists but rarely followed through. He tweaked licence laws and allowed municipalities to vote themselves dry, but he never let the carrot of prohibition fall within reach of the vocal temperance forces.
Then, after 32 years of Liberal rule, when the Tories gained power in 1904, they refused to entertain the idea of provincewide prohibition, choosing instead to intensify the licensing regime. They increased licence fees, tightened enforcement and further centralized control.
Although not eliminating alcohol, these moves earned widespread support from the prohibitionists, despite then-premier James Whitney’s insistence that prohibition was off the table.
By the First World War, the province was moving toward more centralized control of stronger liquors, while beer and wine faced less restriction. The reasons were twofold. For decades, moderationists, who were concerned about drunkenness but rejected prohibition as an unworkable violation of liberty, argued that encouraging the consumption of beer and light wines would eliminate rampant drunkenness. These drinks were not so socially problematic; some even called them “temperance beverages” in the spirit of “tempering” your consumption. All things in moderation.
On top of that, beer and wine manufacturing supported Ontario agriculture. Barley and hops were major crops, and Ontario’s fledgling wine industry was being nurtured by the government. Moreover, people argued that it would violate natural rights not to allow farmers to ferment their own products.
Even provincial Prohibition itself, when it finally appeared in 1916, was limited. Except for briefly during the war, Prohibition did not prohibit the manufacture of booze. In Ontario, both wine and beer were treated differently than spirits. Wines made entirely from Ontario grapes could still be sold. In 1925, beer with no more than 2.5-per-cent alcohol by volume (ABV) was allowed for sale in hotel beverage rooms. Drinkers grumbled that it wasn’t the “good stuff” but it was a concession to the demands of consumers and a recognition that low-alcohol beer was not a problem.
Post-Prohibition laws were modelled upon the heavily restrictive pre-Prohibition era, with the added control of government oversight of all retail sales of alcohol. Restrictions were lifted gradually. In 1927, the Liquor Control Act created the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, or LCBO, to sell booze in government-operated retail outlets for consumption at home (which could also be defined as a hotel room or a tent). People could not choose bottles from a shelf; they had to order them from a clerk and they came in a brown paper bag. In a move that recognized both the power of the brewing lobby and the limited concern over beer as an intoxicant, it allowed brewers to sell beer from their warehouses, initially overseen by government inspectors. This warehouse system was justified because it reduced lineups at liquor stores. Wineries could sell out of their own stores. The law allowed one retail outlet per winery licence but capped the number of licences it would issue. Soon, bigger wineries bought up smaller operations so they could get their hands on the licences and open more stores. A rapid consolidation of wineries meant some bigger businesses could have stores across the province.
In 1934, Ontarians saw the return of public drinking when hotels were licensed to sell beer in “beverage rooms” and beer and wine in dining rooms. Again, strict oversight was the feature, but beer and wine were the least problematic of the drinks, so these changes offered a way to appease drinkers while not upsetting the temperance forces and facing political backlash. The restrictive rules governing how beverage rooms would operate – no stand-up bar, no games, no music, no singing, no dancing except in dining rooms with dinner – were designed to reshape the way people thought about and consumed alcohol in public.
Public consumption of spirits came at the end of the Second World War, with the opening of lounges that didn’t need to be connected to hotels and in which spirits could be consumed. This was, arguably, the last major change in the liquor regime, although over time, restrictions about activities within the beverage rooms were lifted, related to things such as closing hours or whether food had to be on offer. Changes in the way LCBO stores operated – allowing people to browse the shelves rather than request their purchases from a clerk – emerged late in the 1960s.
Through all of this, provincial governments were striking a balancing act. Overly restrictive laws would encourage illegal sales and general discontent among the people who drink; overly permissive laws drew criticism from the temperance folks who saw any increase in drinking as a return to the “horrors” – raucous saloon life, for instance – of pre-Prohibition. Yet those horrors were generally mythical and based upon the over-consumption of spirits, not beer and wine.
Even still, failing to strike the balance was not a recipe for doom, dry or wet. Laws create the framework for how a system operates, while policies and regulations developed by the government agency (ministry, control board, commission, etc.) govern the minutiae of a regulatory system (for example, Mr. Ford didn’t need to pass a law to change liquor-store opening hours). If liquor laws are too permissive, and there is evidence of overdrinking or other negative outcomes, policy-makers tighten the rules; if the rules are too restrictive, and there is evidence of illegal sales and other problems, they loosen the rules.
In both cases, however, policy change requires useful evidence.
Unfortunately, most of the research on alcohol is focused on harms, so the results tend to support restrictions on sales. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If all you’re looking for is harm, then that’s what you’ll find. Public-health researchers have little time for the idea that drinking alcohol might have benefits.
Yet, if more research were done into the positive effects of drink – in regards to socialization, community, social support, workplace camaraderie and so on – and if those effects were given as much weight as statistically significant but numerically marginal changes in health outcomes, perhaps we would have a more balanced discussion of the harms and benefits of drinking.
As it is, the debates look surprisingly like those between the temperance and moderation movements a century ago: One side says it’s looking out for the future of the country while painting its opponents as reckless and motivated by self-interest.
Policy should be based on evidence, and I suspect this is the root of opposition to Mr. Ford’s changes. He is not offering any hard evidence but rather impressions about what we should be allowed to do.
It’s a libertarian instinct, based on the idea that government should interfere as little as possible with individual activities. But is he right? It’s hard to know, but Ontarians will soon get to decide whether they share Mr. Ford’s thirst for more booze.