One of the most popular ideas that is being considered by the current Liquor Policy Review is the possibility of making liquor available in grocery and convenience stores. John Yap, Parliamentary Secretary for the Liquor Policy Reform, announced on Oct 29, 2013 that the government is going to explore retail models in other jurisdictions that permit the sale of alcohol in grocery and convenience stores.

The last time the government of British Columbia completed a comprehensive liquor policy review of both the commercial policies (i.e the Liquor Distribution Branch) and the regulatory policies (i.e. the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch) was back in 1987/88 that was chaired by John Jansen, MLA from Chilliwack. At the time I was the General Manager of the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch and was very involved in the review. The issue of liquor in grocery stores was very much the center of discussion at that time and there was strong lobbying by the large grocery chains and convenience stores for liquor to be available in their stores. The Government wisely decided not to pursue this policy for many reasons that are still valid today and need to be considered in the current debate.

How do you define a grocery store? It is obvious that Save on Foods, Thrifty’s, Safeway etc. are grocery stores. But what about Cobb’s Bakery, Kin’s Market or gourmet cooking stores selling food? Would they too be considered grocery stores? Wal-Mart, Shoppers Drug Mart, and Costco all sell food. Are they grocery stores? Is the corner convenience store considered a grocery store? In the Downtown Eastside and Gastown there are stores known for selling high alcohol content mouthwash. Would they be eligible to sell alcohol? Would it be based on items sold, square footage, or some other measure? These questions could significantly increase the availability of liquor to all persons throughout British Columbia and should be carefully considered. When you increase the availability of alcohol, you increase the risk to public safety, abuse and crime.

During the review in 1987/88, the police and health authorities opposed the idea of increasing the availability of alcohol by making it available at grocery and convenience stores. At that time they had many valid reasons for this position such as an increased possibility of shoplifting, robberies, public intoxication, and increased crime. These issues still ring true today. If the availability of liquor is increased, then an increase in monitoring, controlling and enforcement will have to be increased too. Budgets for police and health would need to also be increased to meet with the greater demand.

The Liquor Control and Licensing Branch currently contracts minors to work with liquor inspectors to attempt to purchase alcohol at licensed establishments. Licensees have been hit with high fines and suspensions as a result. The industry has responded by significantly increasing measures to control availability and access to alcohol in addition to heightened policies and procedures ensuring that the highest level of diligent liquor service practices are in place. Allowing the sale of liquor in grocery and convenience stores directly contradicts all of the progress that has been made by implementing these procedures. Minors have no reason to be in a liquor store. They do however have plenty of reasons to be in grocery or convenience stores. In fact, teens naturally gravitate to convenience stores as demonstrated by a visit to any local corner store near a high school during lunch break. Vodka for sale beside the Slurpee machine puts minors at risk.

Minors easily accessing a drug like alcohol, being sold by individuals who are not in the business of selling alcohol, will be just one of the unintended consequences that British Columbians will have to face if this policy change comes to fruition. In 1987/88 we considered, researched, debated and came up with the mixed public and private retail store schematic that has changed over the years but is still in place today. This model has worked well. Increasing the availability of alcohol will make alcohol more convenient, but the cost of the related unintended consequences will be anything but convenient. It’s time for a sober second thought to this possibility.

– Bert Hick, President of Rising Tide Consultants

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