What happens now? Reflecting on the BC Liquor Act Review 2013

After nearly 80 days, the BC liquor policy review wraps up today. For the last 8 weeks we have followed the comments and tweets and have heard thoughts and opinions from the public on how to change liquor policy in BC.  In reviewing the comments on John Yap’s blog, several main themes continued to emerge. First, it is clear that many British Columbian’s feel the current liquor laws are outdated (i.e., “our liquor laws can only be described as archaic – insulting, too”). We agree – in the last decade we have learned much about effective alcohol policy internationally, as well as the costs and benefits of alcohol, which are not reflected in the current laws.

Second, the overwhelming majority of comments centered on a desire for increased convenience and access, both for sale and purchase of alcohol and offered suggestions such as selling alcohol in grocery stores, allowing minors to eat in pubs, and having fewer licensing regulations. Many felt that these changes would help boost local economy and tourism revenue (i.e., “Canada is one of the only countries in the world that restricts the sale of beer and wine to liquor stores. This is a huge inconvenience for consumers, hurts tourism, limits competition, and does not help our economy in any way”), while others cautioned against the harms potentially caused from alcohol, with a particular concern about increasing access to minors (i.e., “Long-term, it will encourage young people to consume more alcohol”). Further, many comments emphasized personal responsibility and suggested that liquor regulations should not punish the majority of responsible drinkers for the irresponsible few (i.e., “Why not stop punishing people for wanting to have a beer at the beach with some friends, and instead punish those who are drinking irresponsibly”). In our alcohol policy blog series we have tried to respond to these comments and offer evidence to facilitate an informed discussion around some of these issues such as balancing harms and costs,  privatization, and increased accessibility.

John Yap’s announcement Tuesday indicates that BC may well go forward with some initiatives to increase consumer convenience in BC, such as selling alcohol in grocery stores. We understand the value placed on convenience in our busy lives and appreciate also the desire  from people in the business sector to improve the viability of their enterprises in a challenging economic environment. We hope to see more announcements that respond to the desire for convenience while addressing British Columbian’s desire to minimize the number of deaths, hospitalization, and injuries caused by alcohol in BC every year.  We know from a recent random survey of people in BC that 84% are in support of using liquor laws to reduce these types of problems that are associated with alcohol use. Research in British Columbia suggests that influencing the price of the cheapest products is of far greater significance when it comes to improving health and safety outcomes than are the number of liquor outlets. Furthermore, maintaining minimum alcohol prices protects the profits of many sectors of the alcohol industry, enhances government revenue and impacts mostly on the heaviest alcohol consumers – with substantial health benefits resulting for that group. A modern approach to liquor regulation in the 21st-century involves allowing consumers more responsibility, providing them with better information to make choices and further encouraging those choices through a  price structure which favors lower alcohol content beverages. These changes may help reduce any increases in alcohol-related problems that could arise from loosening restrictions in order to increase convenience. With the right balance, maybe it is possible to increase convenience while using evidence-based strategies to simultaneously reduce the substantial harms from alcohol.


***Tune in next week for the first post in our next Blog series “The cannabis question: where do we go from here?

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Authors: Kara Thompson, PhD and Tim Stockwell, Director, Centre for Addictions Research of BC

Initiatives for evolving safer public drinking environments

A significant portion of alcohol-related harm is associated with a small number of licensed establishments that fail to meet acceptable standards of responsible beverage service. These places are more likely to serve minors and intoxicated patrons. The facilities may be poorly designed or staff poorly trained, leading to clients becoming upset or getting into altercations. Excessively noisy entertainment and narrow passageways are just a couple of common problems that can contribute to aggressive or damaging behaviour.

Current provincial legislation and municipal by-laws do address such issues. For example, the Serving it Right training program is mandatory for managers and servers. Also, local zoning requirements regulate acceptable floor plans and stipulate crowd limits. Periodic examination of the premises and monitoring of performance by government authorized personnel (e.g., inspectors, police officers, pseudo-shoppers) are important enforcement mechanisms for confirmation of continuing compliance with conditions intended to ensure security and enjoyment for patrons in these settings.

What more can local communities and citizens do to ensure local establishments are safe and enjoyable places to be? We could plaster our communities with “responsible use” messages. But evidence suggests that on their own such strategies have minimal impact. We could adopt a health protection approach with more frequent surveillance and tighter enforcement of regulations. Indeed some element of this is no doubt needed, and it can be effective. But is there more that can be done? Can we also apply the health promotion principle of self-regulation to entities such as licensed establishments?

This has been attempted, first in Australia in the 1990s with promising initial results in reduction of disorderly conduct and violent encounters. The idea was to form an agreement among local operators of licensed establishments to uphold and monitor acknowledged standards for safe and comfortable premises and quality service that consumers could confidently count on. Subsequent programs have not all been so successful, but the principle of supporting self-regulation in preventing harm inspired a 2003 initiative in Manchester England under the moniker of Best Bar None that has spread in the UK with encouraging impact. It has since been positively adopted in Alberta and Ontario.

The program involves the hospitality industry and government authorities (including local police) reaching consensus on appropriate criteria that licensed establishments must meet to gain and retain recognized accreditation in the program. Qualifying applicants are entitled to display the credentials in their promotion and are potentially eligible for awards conferred on those retail outlets who demonstrate the most consistent maintenance of the standards committed to. And citizens get to make informed choices about what establishments they wish to frequent when wanting a safe and enjoyable night out. The program as implemented in Alberta appears to be an approach that merits serious consideration here in BC.

As almost always, the magic is in finding the balance. Health promotion, regulation and education work best when they work together. The enforcement of regulations is required for those that won’t or can’t regulate themselves. In fact, some level of monitoring and enforcement is needed to keep us all honest. Education has a critical role in building shared understanding and evolving social norms. Nonetheless, engaging the operators of licensed establishments together with other members of the community and providing a range of incentives to encourage responsible behaviour is also an important part of building healthy communities.

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Authors: Tim Dyck (left), Dan Reist (right)