Wynne was mocked for saying selling beer in corner stores is ‘reckless.’ Experts agree with her

What happens when you increase the number of places alcohol is sold?

That was the question raised this week when Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne called the Progressive Conservative’s plan to allow booze in corner stores “reckless.” Her remarks prompted backlash and mockery, with many on social media saying her response was alarmist.

The Liberals recently opened up sales of alcohol to grocery stores in Ontario but stopped short of making it available beyond that, arguing it would lead to an increase in “human costs.”Conservative Leader Doug Ford, however, says it’s a move that other provinces have found works for consumers. (NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has said the current system is socially responsible and works well.)

The Star asked experts in public policy, health and economics for their take on the effects of allowing booze sales in corner stores.

“If you have any recognition about the heath issues around liquor you’d be crazy to put it into private convenience stores and increase its physical access under a profit motive,” Greg Flanagan, an economist who studied the Alberta deregulation of retail alcohol sales, said.

The debate is not new, Flanagan said. Time and time again, the issue has cropped up in elections and policy discussions, dividing the population.  “It’s following this continuing notion that alcohol is just another product,” Flanagan said. “There’s no recognition of the costs, never mind the human factors or the costs to the public.”

Dr. Robert Mann, a senior scientist at CAMH, said there is a direct correlation between the availability or accessibility of alcohol and public health and safety issues.  “If more alcohol is made available, consumption increases,” he said, “that leads to more drinking and driving, more alcohol-related deaths and suicides and homicides.”

Mann added that a recent estimate of the cost of alcohol-related harms amounted to more than $3 billion annually. “After tobacco, alcohol is the leading contributing factor to death and injury in Canada,” he said.

At present, Quebec and Alberta are the only provinces that allows the sale of beer and wine in corner stores.

The discussion over the sale of alcohol in convenience stores is restarting in Quebec, however, after a 14-year-old girl was found dead in a stream in March after consuming two sugary, high-alcohol beverages from a local store.

The Star spoke to four experts who all said the main concern of selling alcohol in corner stores is the possible sale to minors and the increase in contraband and bootleg products. The risks also include higher likelihood of break-ins and robberies.

“It’s our favourite recreational drug,” Timothy Stockwell, a University of Victoria professor whose research focuses on substance use issues, said. “It causes 15 to 20 per cent more harm than cannabis and we have stricter regulations around cannabis.”

In his research, Stockwell has found the increased sale of alcohol in corner stores adds especially to health inequalities and impairs public safety in low-income neighbourhoods they’re located in.

A study Stockwell performed in 89 local health areas in British Columbia over several years found that with a 44-per-cent increase in the number of stores that sold alcohol, came a proportional rise in alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations.

He has found some 14,800 deaths in Canada are caused by alcohol — a number he estimates will increase with more private sales.  “People love the idea of convenient alcohol,” Stockwell said. “But it compromises public health and public safety.”

The Conservatives, however, say any new locations selling booze would be regulated similar to the LCBO.  “It’s time to acknowledge that Ontario is mature enough for this change and ready join other jurisdictions in making life a little more convenient,” Ford said.  “Consumers will soon be able to grab a bottle of wine in the same location where they get their groceries for an evening dinner with guests, or grab a case of beer around the corner from where they live, so they can entertain friends,” he said.

“I believe in doing what’s convenient for the people, and not what’s convenient for the government.”

But regulation can be costly, Flanagan said. The costs to the government of surveillance, monitoring and administration are often larger than the revenue of the sales, just as it was with cigarettes.

“It just doesn’t make sense.”

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