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Now we’re lining up to get overcharged for booze

The sustained lineups in front of LCBO stores tell us booze is deemed essential through the coronavirus pandemic, the employees there frontline workers who’ve kept us watered through the crisis.

The Crown agency has undoubtedly been profiting from that, just as the union has been attempting to make hay, both in terms of wages but also in trying to brand management as greedy and unconcerned with the welfare of workers.

The long lineups aren’t unique to the LCBO nor the fault of its profiteering on the backs of Ontarians. But the lines do put its nanny-state monopoly into an unflattering comparison to Soviet-era shops. It’s an image the agency has been trying to shake off for years through the likes of extended hours, greater selection and modernized stores, though it’s done nothing to reverse the excessive pricing and taxation, problems foisted on the corporation by successive governments.

Excessively high taxes on alcohol are a go-to taxation for spendthrift politicians. One could argue they should lower taxes to serve as a diversion from the colossal failures of government. Instead, they continually hike taxes knowing we’ll continue to drink, in part due to the colossal failures of government, including unwarranted tax hikes and massive amounts of waste.

Irony, thy name is “I need a drink.”

Beer, wine and spirits are always being swept up in the move to separate Ontarians from their money.

That’s the reason there’s ongoing contempt for the government in general and, specifically, with a longstanding dissatisfaction with the handling of alcohol sales in the province, from absurd pricing to rigged sales restrictions.

Much of the ire is simply a reflection of our inherent dissatisfaction with the LCBO and paternalistic liquor laws, coupled with our distrust of pretty much anything overseen by bureaucrats and politicians. Tax increases are seen as another reason to privatize the operation, stripping government of its outdated controls of alcohol.

Yes, the stores themselves have come a long way over the years. They’re much nicer places to shop, especially compared with the Beer Store, that even more antiquated government-sanctioned cartel selling us our suds. The hours have been extended, but there’s nothing like the convenience found in other jurisdictions. Nor the selection. And, most gallingly given that the LCBO is the world’s largest buyer of spirits, nothing like the much better prices found elsewhere.

If the LCBO really wants to be accepted, cut the prices significantly, offer a much better selection (something akin to a grocery store in Buffalo would be a start) and offer more convenience.

The province, of course, has no interest in any of that.

With alcohol, as with cigarettes, governments suffer from multiple personality disorder. On the one hand, they’re addicted to the revenues, on the other they want to discourage consumption. The nanny state prevails, but they do love the money. (There’s a similar issue with gasoline, electricity and water, where government preach conservation, but decry the lower revenues when we actually cut back.)

The nanny state is never more apparent when it comes to booze. Ontarians apparently would become hardened alcoholics without minimum pricing and fettered access. All we have to do is look at the problems in nearby provinces and states to see that. Oh, wait, that’s not what you’ll find. And the government doesn’t want you to look elsewhere, lest you become even more upset about the poor state of things here. Disillusionment is bad for the business of re-election.

With its modernization efforts, the LCBO is trying to suck and blow. If the goal is about marketing to boost sales, then that runs completely contrary to a host of regulations (nanny state, remember?) to make alcohol more expensive and less convenient to obtain.

Privatization is not the cure-all, however. As we’ve seen elsewhere, that can and often does lead to higher prices, less selection and, over time, control concentrated in fewer hands – and we have countless examples of toothless anti-trust laws and even limper enforcement.

What’s really needed is a cultural shift to something more European in flavour when it comes to booze: treating adults like, well, adults. Lower prices would be a start, as would allowing some competition in the form of specialized stores that could offer up some of the huge list of products the LCBO seems disinclined to stock (see the craft beer or whisk(e)y selections of some small U.S. shops, for instance).

Touching on the longstanding debate, If beer and wine were sold more widely in grocery and convenience stores (the government is trying this as a PR stunt, rather than an actual change), it would benefit smaller breweries, which are now dependent on a retail channel owned and controlled by their much larger competitors, despite some efforts to be more inclusive.

Pricing is a big issue. In parts of Europe, you can find very drinkable wines for under $3 a bottle. Imports from Australia and the U.S. that run $15 to $20 here can be had for a third of that price. That tells you it’s all about markup and taxes – as noted, successive profligate governments are addicted to the LCBO profits, not to mention the tax revenues.

Where we might be inclined to drop a few bucks on a new Ontario wine or craft beer, the government’s pricing often precludes that option. Backwards policies make it even more difficult for upstarts to reach consumers. As a consequence, the industry suffers.

The province has no interest in consumers or small producers. Next time you’re in the U.S. seeing what real options are like and fuming over the one-bottle limit at the border, keep in mind that pricing in Europe, though varied, is mitigated by an EU customs agreement that allows people to transport much larger volumes of their favourite beverages.

That’s a fact that’ll leave you crying in your (overpriced) beer… or wine, should it still be in your budget. Increased sales of late indicate many of us stuck at home through the COVID-19 situation have been indulging in just that, likely a taxation bright spot governments have no desire to roll back.

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