What is the purpose of BC’s liquor laws in 2013?

Almost 100 years ago Canadian provinces other than Québec voted for the total prohibition of alcohol. In BC this occurred in 1917 following a referendum but was soon repealed in 1921, overwhelmed by a tide of organized crime, official corruption and political scandal. Prohibition was imposed on the aboriginal people of Canada for over a century ending only in 1962.

Key elements of our present system of liquor control in BC emerged out of those prohibition years. In 1921, social concerns were addressed through a government owned sales and distribution system. There were few liquor outlets, operating for limited hours and drinkers had to purchase a license.

This month the BC government announced a review of its liquor policies, the first comprehensive review since 1999. The conditions that led to prohibition are largely no longer with us: a world war, disenfranchised women and sky high alcohol consumption, mostly by men.  But the “social concerns” about alcohol have not disappeared. What can we learn from that the prohibition era? What have we learned about alcohol problems and how best to address them at this time in our history?

Alcohol is enjoyed by most people in British Columbia, most often with little or no harm.  The government collects over $1 billion in revenue from alcohol sales. However, the BC Vital Statistics Agency also reports there were 18,752 alcohol-related deaths between 2002 and 2011. BC Ministry of Health data shows around 190,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions over those 10 years with a distinct upward trend. Police tell us that most of their work is alcohol-related—the Vancouver hockey riots of 2011 a particularly notorious instance.

This is the first of a series of blogs on alcohol and alcohol policy in British Columbia prepared by graduate students and staff at CARBC. We wish to stimulate informed debate by asking questions, giving opinions and highlighting relevant research.

The current legislation refers to “the public interest” and highlights “public safety” but is silent on “health”. The review is to make recommendations that will ensure “government revenue is maintained or increased” while the “health and social harms caused by liquor” are minimized. Clearly alcohol is no ordinary commodity and governments cannot simply allow the alcohol market to govern itself. It is alcohol’s potential for harm that warrants this special treatment. But is this sufficiently clear in BC’s legislation? Our first question, therefore, in this series opener is:

Should a modern liquor control act have clear objectives that include encouraging low-risk use and minimizing alcohol-related harms to individuals and communities?


Authors & Series Editors, from left to right: Tim Stockwell, Dan Reist, Kara Thompson

Should Canadians be warned about the risks of alcohol use?

It is well known that alcohol is associated with road crashes, injuries, and cirrhosis of the liver. Less well-known is that alcohol is causally linked to at least eight different types of cancer including mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, colon and rectum, and is among the top three leading risk factors for death from cancer worldwide. In fact, recent surveys suggest that nearly 70% of Canadians are unaware of the link between alcohol and cancer. How can Canadians make informed decisions about their alcohol use if they are unaware of the risks?

Warning labels are mandatory for many other consumer products in Canada, including vitamins, energy drinks and tobacco, to name a few, but alcohol packaging carries no consumer health warnings. The Yukon and the Northwest Territories are the only exception; they manually add warning labels about the risk of drinking during pregnancy at the point of sale. There are at least two dozen countries worldwide that also require warning labels, such as the US, which requires labels on every alcohol product sold, including those manufactured in other countries such as Canada.

The idea of warning labels has met with resistance from both the federal government and the alcohol industry who argue that there is no proof the labels help and so no reason to add them. But is that true? Warning labels on tobacco products have been part of a package of measures that have contributed to dramatic declines in smoking in recent decades. They may also help create a climate of informed opinion that can facilitate more directly effective prevention policies. The Canadian government has provided global leadership in efforts to force tobacco companies to put warning labels on their packaging. Why is alcohol treated differently when we are well aware of huge health and social costs associated with its consumption?

Even if we choose not to heed alcohol warning labels, isn’t it still our right to know about the potential risks of consuming alcohol and how to reduce them? If the government is at least partially responsible for the distribution of alcohol, should it not be their responsibility to make sure that consumers are aware of the risks?

Should alcohol beverage containers in BC have warning labels that inform consumers about the health and safety risks of alcohol consumption?


Author: Kara Thompson