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 First, it is clear that many British Columbian’s feel the current liquor laws are outdated (i.e., “our liquor laws can only be described as archaic – insulting, too”).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?

Image      Image


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

Harm to others: Is alcohol just a private matter?

While we know that there are individual risks associated with consuming alcohol, such as acute injuries or chronic diseases such as liver cirrhosis, how often do we think about the impact that our own alcohol use has on those around us? Alcohol use has many potential negative secondhand effects including stress to relationships, impacts on other’s health and safety (e.g. on the roads, in the streets late at night, in the workplace), violence and property crime, developmental problems in children and substantial economic costs.  For example, in 2012 alone there were 17,888 alcohol-related violent crimes committed in BC.

Looking at the overall impact of all these second-hand effects of alcohol has been an important focus of research in recent years. When smoking was linked with cancer and people became aware of the effects of second hand smoke, we began to see major developments in tobacco policy designed to protect those affected by other people’s smoking. The same is true of changes to drinking and driving policies and to some degree initiatives to prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)—when innocent people are harmed it gets people’s attention and this can pave the way for change.

While there is limited data on this specific to Canada, three Canadian studies conducted between 2004 and 2008 found that nearly one in three adults reported experiencing one or more types of harm resulting from someone else’s drinking in the past 12 months. In contrast, according to the Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey results for 2010, of those who drank alcohol in the past year fewer than one in ten reported experiencing any harm to self, showing that individuals are much more likely to be affected my others drinking than their own drinking.

Do we need to use a wider-lens when we think about the impact of alcohol use? Would social norms around alcohol use change significantly if we started taking harms to others more seriously? Many individuals are ‘responsible’ drinkers, but others are often not. Moreover, our level of responsibility declines as our level of consumption increases. Liquor laws help protect everyone, drinkers and non-drinkers and we need to carefully consider how access to cheap alcohol affects drinkers and non-drinkers alike.

Now probably the most important question is what can we do about harm to others? There are many specific measures to reduce these harms that can be applied in different contexts e.g. policing late-night drinking venuesdeterring impaired driving and also more general measures which target hazardous drinking in the whole population. CARBC research shows that while BC leads in some areas of alcohol policy it also lags well behind in others and, overall is only achieving half its potential for alcohol harm reduction – both for drinkers and those around them.

How important is it that we implement evidence-based policies that can reduce harm for everyone?


Authors: Kate Vallance (pictured), Kara Thompson, Ashley Wettlaufer