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Community Soapbox: OCSA Wants To “Free Our Beer”, But Do We?

beer, liquor, convenience store, ontarioYesterday, the Ontario Convenience Stores Association (OCSA) brought a petition to Queen’s Park containing more than 112,000 signatures asking the government to “free our beer” and allow the sale of alcohol at local convenience stores. At first glance, it might sound like a good idea, and would allow for more convenient purchases.

The OSCA has quickly and repeatedly shared data that claims that the majority of Ontarians support this change. In contrast, last September, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) published a report called Ontarians’ Opinions about Alcohol Policy. The report showed that a strong majority (73%; 95% CI: 69%-76%) of Ontarians do not want alcohol to be available in corner stores. This anonymous, random-digit-dialing telephone survey provides an unbiased view of the Ontario landscape, far different from the biased petition being presented by the OCSA, which only focuses on those who are in favour of this change. Also, in contrast, a recent random telephone survey of Kingston residents actually found that 68% of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with selling alcohol in corner stores. Furthermore, 95% and 93% of residents stated that beer store hours and liquor store hours should either stay the same or be decreased. These data provide clear indication that the majority of Kingston residents are satisfied with the access that they currently have for purchasing alcohol.

The OCSA has also shared data that claims that convenience store operators are the best at checking ID of potential underage purchasers and therefore do not present any increased risk of harm to the youth in our community. A recent KFL&A Public Health enforcement check found that 12% of stores were found to have sold tobacco to shoppers under the age of 19. As alcohol is the number one drug chosen by youth and is used by 54.9% of grade 7 to 12 students according to CAMH’s 2011 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, this 12% failure is cause for concern as the risk for harm due to alcohol use by youth is already high. In addition to the issue of sales to people who are underage, the issue of exposure of youth to alcohol products is a concern. A question to ask ourselves is: do we really want our children and youth to be exposed continually to alcohol products and marketing in convenience stores when they go to purchase items such as bread, milk or candy? This exposure and branding will increase the normalization of the product at a very impressionable age.

Currently, Kingston has four LCBOs, four Beer Stores, and eight wine retail locations – 14 outlets in all. If all 75 convenience stores in Kingston become licensed to sell alcohol, it will represent more than a fivefold increase in alcohol retail locations in Kingston. According to MADD Canada, Ontario has about 1,000 LCBO and Beer Store retail locations. The estimated ratio of convenience stores to LCBO and Beer Store locations is 7 to 1, which would translate to an additional 7000 community locations where wine and beer may be accessed. Increased access is known to lead to increased consumption which leads to increased harms to the drinker, and potential harms to innocent bystanders, and the community.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to two arguments; the economic outcomes and health outcomes of our community. Economically the case is made that selling alcohol in corner stores will open up competition, provide cheaper prices and more choices for the consumer. When considering this point, it is important to note that even in our current alcohol retail market controlled by the provincial government, there is already an economic loss from the sale of alcohol. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse has calculated that the direct revenues from the sale of alcohol in Ontario are almost $500 million less than the direct costs associated with the sale of alcohol, including enforcement and health care costs. The potential health outcomes for our population can be immediate, such as injuries and deaths due to impaired driving, drowning, falls, fires, suicide, homicide, sexual assault and other violence. Moreover, the health outcomes can be long-term and include certain cancers, high blood pressure, mental health problems, liver disease, and stroke. According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is the second most harmful risk factor for disease and disability in developed countries including Canada. It is associated with increased health and social costs. In times of increasing health care costs, these facts should not be ignored. The OCSA is concerned with creating opportunities for their members and this is commendable; we rely on the growth and development of our private sector for the overall wellbeing of our communities. However, this very important decision with potential short and long term impacts must be considered carefully and not simply based on convenience.

For now, the provincial government is reporting that they will not change the current retail system for alcohol. This is good news. It is important however, for all communities to be well informed to make good decisions. Unfortunately the information the OCSA campaign is providing to the public and government officials is incomplete and could lead the province to take future action that will cause more harm than good. The decision may be as simple as the OCSA would like us to believe, if alcohol were a regular product. However, alcohol is not a regular product, given the significant short and long term harms related to its use. It is the government’s responsibility to control for these harms while aiming to minimize the impact these controls have on our freedom.

Alcohol is undeniably a part of our social and economic fabric. Communities are encouraged to work together to consider what factors are creating an environment that allows alcohol to be used in ways that are harmful. On November 5, 2012, KFL&A Public Health and the Safe & Sober Community Alliance will launch a report on alcohol-related harms in Kingston. We look forward to starting a conversation with our community about how we can ensure that alcohol is only a part of our good times. We hope to see you there.
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Submitted to Kingstonist’s Community Soapbox by: Cathy Edwards and Tanya Beattie. Thanks to Todd Dwyer for the photo associated with this post.

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6 thoughts on “Community Soapbox: OCSA Wants To “Free Our Beer”, But Do We?

  • July 31, 2012 at 1:53 pm
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    Quebec offers beer and wine sales in most grocery and convenience stores. They still have an equivalent to the LCBO (SAQ), which offers wider selection and liquor for sale. The prices seem pretty comparable for most things you can get here in Ontario. On the other hand, lots of ppl who go over to Quebec Costcos and load up on cheaper beer. Lots of folks are doing this for their weddings and parties nowadays as it offers a savings of as much as $4/beer on the primo brands. So long as this doesn't mean the death of the beer store or LCBO, I think it's worth testing. And what better place than Kingston?

  • August 1, 2012 at 12:32 pm
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    Interesting. Prior to really thinking about it, I think my answer would have been a simple yes, lets get booze in convenience stores for sure! – it would be more convenient and give us lower prices in the end through healthy competition.

    But, coincidentally, there is a parallel topic garnering lots of attention, and that is the idea of a Casino in Kingston, which I am dead against.

    Both of these proposals offer increased exposure to something that is capable of producing and reinforcing very negative behaviours, addictions, etc… and both gambling and alcohol commonly do this! There is no debating that.

    Anyway, I think based on that, I've reconsidered and now think access to booze in convenience store might be a bad idea. For the responsible user, the minor increase in convenience over going to an LCBO isn't worth the potential for increases in youth drinking, alcoholism, etc…

    I guess the main question might be, does a place like Quebec (where booze is sold in convenience stores) truly have higher rates of alcoholism than Ontario? Does Quebec have a higher rate of alcohol-related incidents with youth? More drinking and driving? I.e are the risks theoretical or real?

  • August 1, 2012 at 4:31 pm
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    Responsible use of alcohol is something everyone must be diligent about whether they're buying alcohol at a private restaurant or bar, and the government-run LCBO or the foreign owned Beer Store. That's a responsibility we all have.

    When it comes to sales of alcohol, not only do 200 convenience stores in Ontario already sell alcohol responsibly, independent third-party testing demonstrates convenience stores are better at keeping age-restricted products like tobacco and alcohol out of the hands of minors than the government-run LCBO or foreign-owned Beer Store.

    When independently tested with underage secret shoppers (age 15-18) by Statopex Field Marketing (www.statopex.com), convenience stores scored the best with an 87.3% pass rate, The Beer Store next with 80.7% and LCBO last with 74.6% – meaning 1 in 4 minors successfully purchased age-restricted products from LCBO, and 1 in 5 from The Beer Store – compared to 1 in 8 for convenience stores.

    Convenience stores are also regularly mystery-shopped by local Boards of Health, and scrutinized by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario – the LCBO and Beer store are subject to neither.

    The facts are that convenience stores are setting the standard when it comes to checking for age, and through our zero-tolerance age check and training program ‘We Expect ID’ we’re ready for the responsibility of beer and wine sales. Not only are OCSA member stores’ staff highly trained, they have ID check technology neither LCBO nor The Beer Store have.

  • August 6, 2012 at 10:30 pm
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    The authors' concern is the social responsibility attached to alcohol. Ontario attitudes are influenced by a long history, repressive in many aspects, that is attached to the abuse of alcohol. It has still to catch up with the mores of European and Quebec societies where moderate drinking wine and beer is an ordinary occurrence, and excessive drinking is certainly a problem but is it different than anywhere else?

    Quebec has an excellent model. Grocery stores, even large chains, and convenience stores sell selected beer and wine brands, all of which are also available at the provincial stores, the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ). The latter also sell better quality wines and spirits. Grocery and convenience stores are responsible for returns of recyclable containers.

    To exaggerate the authors' position, with so many groceries and convenience stores selling alcohol, one would expect the good citizens of Montreal and elsewhere to be reeling down the streets in a permanent state of intoxication. That's hardly the case.

    As for statistics that appear to support widespread support for the current system, one has to wonder about the value of public opinion whose participants lack the experience of other ways of buying alcohol. It would be more impressive if the survey had singled out those with experience of both the Quebec and Ontario models. Without being able to refer to another model, a survey that confirms only the status quo is suspect.

    My complaint is with the return of alcohol bottles and cans. To have just four places, the Beer Stores, where containers can be returned in a city this size is preposterous. It's really not fun to be behind a restaurant or bar returning several cases of beer bottles. And unless containers are returned, the fee attached to each purchase remains with the LCBO or Beer Store, in effect, a silent tax.

    And finally, as previously stated in another comment, there are already Beer Store and LCBO outlets in the grocery shops found in small communities across the province. They seem to work well. Why not in larger places such as Kingston?

  • August 8, 2012 at 11:58 am
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    I've been here three years after moving from the UK. My first impressions were that alcohol prices here were ludicrously high and that it was really inconvenient to have to go to the LCBO. However, my views have changed. I think that there are some important tax-related issues, for example the state should look at the damage it is doing to its own small vineyards and brewers. However, most other things around alcohol here are better than in the UK. You certainly don't get anything like the same levels of alcohol-related violence and public nuisance here in Ontario as you do in Britain. Britain is now trying to think of ways of controlling alcohol sales having had very liberal laws for a long time. In particular, the discounting practices of supermarkets are one target of new regulations. In the town I used to live in, alcohol-related domestic violence was common, fighting outside pubs was frequent and the streets flowed with urine on Friday and Saturday nights. Quebec isn't really a valid comparison, given that French culture has a very different attitude to drinking alcohol in general. I'd look to Britain or the USA to see the problems that Ontario would have if things were significantly liberalized. So, I've changed my mind since coming here and now feel pretty happy with the status quo. Oh, and I drink less too.

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