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Naomi Buck (Paul Hahn)
Naomi Buck (Paul Hahn)

NAOMI BUCK

Neither rhyme nor reason to Ontario's beer sales ‘shakeup’ Add to ...

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.

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An elated Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne bought a six-pack of Rhyme & Reason beer at a downtown Toronto grocery store last week, and pronounced to a gaggle of reporters that this “was the biggest shakeup to alcohol sales since the end of Prohibition.”

She may be right, and that’s scary. Ontario’s approach to the sale of alcohol is so retrograde that the announcement that six-packs of certain beers can now be sold in 58 grocery stores across the province can actually be called historic.

The government’s step is a baby one in the right direction, but what’s stopping it from taking the leap? Ontarians are not so befogged by warm Yuletide weather that they believe the Liberal government’s claim that by maintaining a monopolistic grip over the sale of alcohol, and granting retail rights for beer to a group of foreign-owned breweries (which own The Beer Store), it is ensuring orderly, legal sales and fair pricing.

To call a spade a spade: The province is cozy with the brewers and the relationship is so fruitful ($1.1-million in donations to Ontario political parties from The Beer Store’s corporate owners over the past decade) that neither sees grounds for even the gentlest of separations.

Ms. Wynne joins an august lineage. When William IV, Duke of Bavaria, proclaimed in 1516 that beer could only be brewed with barley, hops and water, he wasn’t concerned about taste, but rather his coffers. Beer generated a good chunk of his dukedom’s revenue and the Bavarian Purity Law (still brandished proudly on some beer labels today) set the rule on prices, conditions of sale and ingredients.

But just because Bavaria did it in the 16th century doesn’t mean Ontario should in the 21st. Germany now has among the most permissive alcohol laws in the world. German youth can purchase beer and wine at 16 and spirits at 18; alcohol is sold in grocery stores, corner stores and gas stations across the country.

Has this led to wrack and ruin? Nein. Germans do drink a lot; according to the World Health Organization, about 15 litres of pure alcohol per capital, each year (compared with Canadians’ 13 litres), but binge drinking (60 grams or more of pure alcohol at a shot) in Germany is less prevalent (12 per cent) than in Canada (18 per cent), as are alcohol-related driving fatalities.

Nor can Ontario claim that the current system of restricted access to alcohol is having the desired effect. According to the provincial health ministry, heavy drinking among youth ages 15 to 25 is on the rise, and the age that alcohol consumption begins has dropped to 13 and younger.

A 2009 health ministry study found that 25 per cent of Ontarians ages 12 to 19 reported heavy drinking episodes (five or more drinks on one occasion) in the previous year. Bear in mind that these were reported episodes, and the legal drinking age in Ontario is 19.

If the province is controlling sales, it certainly isn’t controlling consumption. The 2009 study also found the reported rate of heavy drinking among youth was as high as 65 per cent in North Bay and 51 per cent in the rural north.

Maybe the government should stop debating which brewery will be granted which licence for which grocery shelf and address the socioeconomic issues that likely bedevil young drinkers: high unemployment, low postsecondary education, poor access to fresh produce and clean drinking water.

Treating alcohol as a forbidden fruit, best kept under lock and key, does nothing to keep it out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have it. (Counting a number of hard-core alcoholics among my forefathers, I know their ways. That the local corner store in our North Toronto neighbourhood didn’t carry hooch wasn’t a problem; the personal stashes of Johnny Walker scattered about our home never, ever ran dry. One great-uncle kept a bottle of salad oil in the pocket of his car door, swearing that it foiled the breathalyzer every time.)

Maybe after Ms. Wynne is through her Rhyme & Reason, she could help the province to dismount its high puritanical horse, allow market forces to do what they do best and let consumers decide for themselves where and when they buy their brew. Daring to dream, I picture Bavarian-style beer gardens popping up where Beer Stores once stood, and Ontarians neither guzzling nor stockpiling, but enjoying the very respectable suds that breweries in this province now have on offer.

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