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A couple of years ago, a client of mine wondered why he couldn't serve wine and champagne to customers in his high-end Vancouver clothing store.

I was aware that businesses in Las Vegas regularly served champagne to shoppers at retail clothing stores, shoe stores, hair salons and similar establishments. But after reviewing British Columbia's liquor licensing regulations, it was abundantly clear that, other than acquiring a one-time "special event permit" – which was only available to individuals and non-profit organizations – the client could serve alcohol only within the confines of a restaurant or bar on premises specifically licensed to serve alcohol. As the client didn't have a bar or restaurant in his clothing store, I told him he couldn't lawfully do it, despite what retailers did in Las Vegas.

That will all change on Jan. 23, 2017, when barbershops, salons, spas, cooking schools, art galleries, bookstores and other B.C. businesses that do not have bars and restaurants on their premises can apply for a liquor-primary licence so that liquor can be served to customers in these non-traditional establishments. All sorts of businesses will be able to apply for a liquor-primary licence as long as they do not operate from a motor vehicle, or target minors. And this may be of great interest to many small retail businesses that would like to provide, as a courtesy, a glass of wine, champagne or other alcoholic beverage to their customers without fear of breaking the law.

The B.C. government still wishes to ensure that public health and safety are protected, and that customers are not "overserved" at these non-traditional establishments. Accordingly, retail businesses seeking liquor licences will still be required to go through the same licensing process as other establishments that sell liquor (including a criminal records check on all the owners of the business). Additionally, staff serving liquor will be required to successfully complete B.C.'s mandatory "Serving it right" certification program. Once licensed, these businesses will be under the same legal scrutiny as clubs, bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, and can lose their licences if the regulations are breached.

This change largely arises from a liquor policy review the B.C. government has been undertaking since 2013. As part of that review, which included substantial input from the public, liquor sales are now permitted in certain grocery stores in the province. Restaurants no longer need a separate "lounge" area for customers to enjoy a drink if they don't want food. Special-occasion licences for events such as small weddings, club meetings, sports events and music festivals can now be applied for through a streamlined online process. Patrons no longer need to buy food in a restaurant to be able to drink. Pubs, restaurants and lounges selling drinks by the glass may change their pricing during the day to host "happy hours." Neighbourhood farmers' markets can sell craft beer, cider, wine and spirits. Craft brewers can more easily showcase their products in B.C. liquor stores. There are also other changes to B.C.'s liquor policies available here.

Many of the changes to B.C.'s liquor licensing laws have been welcomed by British Columbians. One of the more significant changes was to allow for wine to be sold from a limited number of B.C. grocery stores. But such wine is limited to VQA (Vintner Quality Alliance) products from British Columbia and doesn't include wines from California and other foreign jurisdictions. This has led to a trade dispute between B.C. and the United States on the grounds that the legislation limiting the sale of B.C.-only wine from grocery stores contravenes NAFTA and World Trade Organization rules, which oblige the province to treat imported products equally with local products.

The provincial government's position is that NAFTA includes an exemption allowing for a limited number of stores to sell only local wines from their shelves.

Tony Wilson is a member of the B.C. government's advisory group to the Ministry of Justice on the B.C. Franchises Act and related regulations. He is a franchising, licensing and intellectual property lawyer at Boughton Law Corp in Vancouver, and an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and Thompson Rivers University law school. He is also a bencher of the Law Society of British Columbia. His opinions do not reflect those of the Law Society of British Columbia or any other organization.

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