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)