21st century drinking in BC: more convenience, more government revenue and reduced harms?

On Friday January 31, 2014 the BC government endorsed all 73 recommendations contained in John Yap’s landmark review of liquor laws with the stated goal of modernizing BC’s approach to managing alcohol. Modern drinking in British Columbia will mean consumers are able to purchase and consume more types of alcohol and in more places. Bars, nightclubs and restaurants will be able to compete aggressively on price by offering happy hours; Canucks fans will be able to consume hard liquor while watching a game; festivalgoers will be able to purchase alcohol and wander freely as they drink it; shoppers will be able to buy alcohol with their groceries and parents will be allowed to bring their children into pubs.

The government heralds these and other measures as a way to free businesses and charities from cumbersome, out of date regulations. Interestingly, the media release is relatively silent on an encouraging swathe of other recommendations in the report that, while less politically appealing, make BC’s approach to alcohol also more responsive to health concerns. Mr Yap clearly heard the messages delivered during the review by individuals and groups concerned with health and safety, including those summarised in the CARBC submission.

We congratulate Mr Yap on his acknowledgement that alcohol is a major health issue and not just a matter for the economy, for tourism and government revenue. His very first recommendations concern the need to communicate the serious health effects of alcohol more effectively to British Columbians along with active promotion of the national drinking guidelines. The report even mentions the word “cancer”. This is critically important: at the present time the BC Liquor Distribution Branch has absolutely no mandate to acknowledge, address or monitor the health and safety consequences of the product it so efficiently distributes across our province. It will now be required to collaborate with health experts to design educational materials and, more importantly, consider how to price the many thousands of its alcoholic products so that: a) they are not too cheap and b) their price reflects their degree of potential harmfulness i.e. alcoholic strength.

Perhaps wisely, the government press release has not trumpeted the recommendations on alcohol pricing. It has used only cautious language stating rather timidly that the BC Liquor Distribution Branch should “consider” setting minimum prices according to the ethanol content of drinks and whether they are at “an appropriate level”. Such policies, while possibly the most effective available to government to reduce alcohol-related harm, are undoubtedly not quite as popular as the introduction of happy hours and less red tape for small business.

For the past eight years CARBC has been collecting and reporting indicators of alcohol consumption and related harms across 89 local areas of the province as part of the Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) Monitoring Project. When Mr Yap’s report asserts that in 2011 there were 20,542 alcohol-related hospital admissions and 1191 alcohol-related deaths, those estimates were calculated by the AOD project team. They were also the basis of research published in the American Journal of Public Health identifying the significant positive impacts of minimum alcohol prices on BC hospital admissions. This same paper also identified negative but smaller impacts on hospital admissions from the increased availability of alcohol associated with the large increase in private liquor outlets that occurred between 2002 and 2006.

On the basis both of local and international research, if the government proceeds with only the more popular recommendations in the report, the net effect will be upward pressure on levels of alcohol consumption and increased harms. If the key recommendations for higher minimum prices based on ethanol content are fully implemented, the net effect will be reduced alcohol-related harms and increased government revenues. Maybe this is what 21st century drinking should be: more choices, more responsibility, more convenience and more financial incentives to produce, promote and consume less harmful products. Perhaps also more funds for treatment and prevention. We at CARBC will continue to watch and hope that the easier and popular policy changes will not be implemented in advance of those which are less popular but more effective in terms of protecting health and safety. Either way, we will observe and report the outcomes as they unfold.

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Authors (left to right): Tim Stockwell, Dan Reist, Kara Thompson, Gerald Thomas, & Kate Vallance

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