What is the purpose of BC’s liquor laws in 2013?

Almost 100 years ago Canadian provinces other than Québec voted for the total prohibition of alcohol. In BC this occurred in 1917 following a referendum but was soon repealed in 1921, overwhelmed by a tide of organized crime, official corruption and political scandal. Prohibition was imposed on the aboriginal people of Canada for over a century ending only in 1962.

Key elements of our present system of liquor control in BC emerged out of those prohibition years. In 1921, social concerns were addressed through a government owned sales and distribution system. There were few liquor outlets, operating for limited hours and drinkers had to purchase a license.

This month the BC government announced a review of its liquor policies, the first comprehensive review since 1999. The conditions that led to prohibition are largely no longer with us: a world war, disenfranchised women and sky high alcohol consumption, mostly by men.  But the “social concerns” about alcohol have not disappeared. What can we learn from that the prohibition era? What have we learned about alcohol problems and how best to address them at this time in our history?

Alcohol is enjoyed by most people in British Columbia, most often with little or no harm.  The government collects over $1 billion in revenue from alcohol sales. However, the BC Vital Statistics Agency also reports there were 18,752 alcohol-related deaths between 2002 and 2011. BC Ministry of Health data shows around 190,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions over those 10 years with a distinct upward trend. Police tell us that most of their work is alcohol-related—the Vancouver hockey riots of 2011 a particularly notorious instance.

This is the first of a series of blogs on alcohol and alcohol policy in British Columbia prepared by graduate students and staff at CARBC. We wish to stimulate informed debate by asking questions, giving opinions and highlighting relevant research.

The current legislation refers to “the public interest” and highlights “public safety” but is silent on “health”. The review is to make recommendations that will ensure “government revenue is maintained or increased” while the “health and social harms caused by liquor” are minimized. Clearly alcohol is no ordinary commodity and governments cannot simply allow the alcohol market to govern itself. It is alcohol’s potential for harm that warrants this special treatment. But is this sufficiently clear in BC’s legislation? Our first question, therefore, in this series opener is:

Should a modern liquor control act have clear objectives that include encouraging low-risk use and minimizing alcohol-related harms to individuals and communities?

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Authors & Series Editors, from left to right: Tim Stockwell, Dan Reist, Kara Thompson

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2 thoughts on “What is the purpose of BC’s liquor laws in 2013?

  1. The ideal balance between access, commercial promotion, and price on one hand and regulation to prevent harm on the other is a challenge to achieve. In BC, the horse seems to have bolted quite far from the barn already. While including these common sense objectives in a modern liquor act should be a no-brainer, I am skeptical whether the measures needed to realize them will be introduced in the present climate of deregulation and privatisation so dear to the present government.

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