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We’re rarely treated like adults

It must be an election year: the province is talking about modernizing its liquor laws, treating Ontarians like adults.

Attorney General Chris Bentley this week said the government plans to loosen restrictions on how alcohol is sold and consumed at festival and other special occasions. Specifically, the goal is to remove the need for beer tents at events and festivals so people can walk around freely with drinks; extend the hours that alcohol can be served at special events, such as weddings or charity fundraisers, to 2 a.m. from 1 a.m., to be consistent with licensed establishments; and allow people to circulate in retail booth areas of festivals with beverages.

Can that other election favourite – the sale of beer and wine in convenience stores – be far behind?

Certainly there are those who would like to see power wrested from The Beer Store, which holds a virtual monopoly on the sale of beer. Proponents of corner store sales say greater convenience and lower prices would flow from competition. Currently the distribution and retail systems are owned by the three largest brewers, Labatt, Molson and Sleeman. Once Canadian companies, the three are now foreign-owned: InBevSA of Belgium, U.S.-based Molson Coors Brewing and Japan’s Sapporo respectively.

If beer was sold in grocery and convenience stores, it would benefit smaller breweries, which are now dependent on a retail channel owned and controlled by their much larger competitors.

The sale of beer and wine in corner stores is a political hot potato. Under previous Conservative governments, the Liberals suggested the change, with the Tories opposed.  In power, the Liberals shunned the idea.

We now have a situation where Conservative leader Tim Hudak – who’s mused about the return of the buck-a-beer option – has suggested changing the rules, while Premier Dalton McGuinty maintains it’s steady as she goes.

Supporters of the status quo usually point to the prospects of minors buying beer, believing it’s easier to police The Beer Store than thousands of smaller outlets.

While monitoring is easier with some 450 beer stores versus an estimated 10,000 convenience stores, we don’t know that the changes would lead to rampant abuse. Having grown up in Montreal, where beer and wine are available in every dépanneur, I certainly saw no evidence of that; underage drinking goes on everywhere.

In Quebec, convenience is certainly a factor. You can nip down to the corner and grab some wine for dinner, albeit not the selection you’d find at the liquor store, the friendly-sounding Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ), as opposed to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

Critics take aim at the convenience factor, claiming it would increase the amount of drinking.

Again, the numbers don’t bear out that argument.

It certainly doesn’t take much extra planning to stop by a beer or liquor store, and hours have been extended due to public demand; the convenience angle is overplayed. From an environmental standpoint, however, there is an upside to being able to walk to the corner store to pick something up rather than having to climb in your car to do so. Especially advantageous for all concerned if you’re going for a refill.

The best arguments in favour of beer and wine in supermarkets and convenience stores are economic.

Unlike the LCBO, which is owned by the province and looks after so-called hard liquor, The Beer Store is a near-monopoly in private hands. And, due to mergers and buyouts, control is now offshore. Allowing craft breweries and wineries direct access to a new retail channel that excludes the big players who control Brewers Retail Inc (BRI).

Originally a co-operative formed in 1927 to warehouse and distribute the beer produced by hundreds of brewers, BRI now represents two major shareholders – Labatt and Molson – and a minor one, Sleeman. In 2005, a provincial study showed the company had become “essentially a private monopoly for the retailing of beer in Ontario.” The year prior, BRI had gross sales of $2.6 billion, accounting for 83.4 per cent of Ontario’s beer sales by volume.

Small breweries have argued for years they don’t get a fair shake at retail stores owned by the big players. Perhaps changing the rules to allow the craft brewers access to corner stores would increase their profile, and their profits. Such sales would also be a boon to the retailers, especially the mom-and-pop shops that struggle with retaining business – even more so with new restrictions on tobacco sales.

Such changes seem like a no-brainer. For the government, however, there is risk in change, especially when it has anything to do with anything resembling moral implications – even after all these years, the ghost of prohibition still haunts us.

The government sees little upside to making the sale of beer and wine an issue. Under the current system, we can indeed get our hands on our beverage of choice, albeit at the high prices mandated by the province and the near-monopoly it has allowed to develop.

Perhaps this summer we can console ourselves with a beverage free from the confines of a festival beer tent.

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