Here's why Ontario restricts alcohol sales

Allowing beer and wine in grocery stores would be a meaningful first step.

(This column originally appeared in the Toronto Sun)

By: Candice Malcolm

As another summer winds down and patio season comes to a close, it’s fair to ask, will Ontario ever reform its archaic laws on the sale of alcohol? The Kathleen Wynne government has repeatedly ruled out the idea of updating liquor laws to allow more choice and convenience for Ontario shoppers. It denies being beholden to powerful unions or the foreign-owned Beer Store cartel, and instead falls back onto the same stale argument, that the government relies on the $1.74 billion annual revenue, and that government control leads to better public health outcomes.

But there is an obvious contradiction between these two points. On one hand, the government claims that through the current system it can optimize alcohol sales and therefore raise more money for the government. But on the other hand, it also claims to need to control the sale of alcohol in order to protect Ontarians from themselves. So, are they trying to increase or decrease sales? Apparently both.

If Ontario were to follow British Columbia’s model of allowing independent stores (including grocery stores starting in 2015) to sell wine and beer alongside the government-controlled B.C. Liquor Store, it could bring in an estimated $1.1 billion in additional revenues. That is more money that could go towards hospitals, schools, our province’s crumbling infrastructure or even a tax cut for cash-strapped Ontario families.

The Wynne government’s other point — that Ontario’s alcohol laws are there to protect vulnerable people and improve Ontario’s public health — also falls flat when lined up against logic. Just because the LCBO closes at 6 p.m. on Sundays doesn’t mean folks cannot drink on Sunday evenings; they just need to find a bar or restaurant that is open. These establishments are permitted to sell alcohol — with a considerable mark-up — despite the government-controlled liquor stores being closed. Problem drinkers can still drink; they just have to pay more for their booze. There is also nothing stopping a problem drinker from stocking up and buying several bottles at a time, eliminating the need for a late-night booze run.

In fact, the current rules encourage it.

These restrictions inconvenience everyone in an attempt to protect a small portion of the population that can easily get around the rules. It is plain to see the Wynne government is obscuring the real reason it refuses to budge on long-overdue reforms. Our prohibition-era alcohol system is not about protecting drinkers or maximizing revenues for the government. It is about power and control, particularly for government-sector unions.

Just last year, the LCBO union was willing to hold the public hostage by disgracefully threatening strike action during the May long weekend, in order to get what it wanted. The Wynne government caved and gave LCBO unionized staff signing bonuses and future pay raises to avoid the strike. With this kind of power, it’s no wonder the Ontario Public Service Employees Union recently stated it would fight tooth and nail to prevent competition in alcohol sales to the LCBO.

If the Wynne government wants to demonstrate it is not beholden to union bosses, it should start by relinquishing some control over alcohol sales. Allowing beer and wine in grocery stores would be a meaningful first step. As Ontarians enjoy the final few weekends of patio season, they should demand more alcohol freedom before the summer of 2015.