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In Rush to Liquor Reforms, Health Debate Missing

UVic expert sees 'more deaths, more killed, more injured, a lot of health problems.'

By Bob Mackin, 25 Jul 2012, TheTyee.ca

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'The more available we make alcohol ... there's more heavy hazardous consumption,' says University of Victoria addictions researcher Tim Stockwell.

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You can bring your own bottle of wine to a restaurant or ship a case across provincial borders. Movie theatres can get a permit to sell a cup of beer along with a tub of popcorn. And the government wants a private company to take over warehousing and hauling for the Liquor Distribution Branch.

This year has been an active one in the evolution of liquor policy in British Columbia, but one topic is notably absent from the conversation.

"There hasn't been a really strong voice from public health to comment and critique on what's being done," said Prof. Tim Stockwell of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. at the University of Victoria.

"The sad fact is the more available we make alcohol, the more it's consumed. It's not just like moderate consumption, there's more heavy hazardous consumption as well. It will always go hand in hand. More deaths, more people killed, more people injured and a lot of associated harms, health problems."

Tallying larger cost of booze

Reforming liquor laws makes consumers generally happy, regardless of political stripe. The privatization push has angered the NDP, whose leader Adrian Dix is making it a priority to oppose as the election looms next May.

On July 20, the Liberal government shortlisted ContainerWorld, Exel, Kuehne+Nagel and Metro Supply Chain Group as candidates for a 10-year private contract. No business plan has been released and there was no formal industry consultation. Exel has lobbied since 2005 with the help of high-profile Liberal strategists and lobbyists Mark Jiles and Patrick Kinsella. Exel failed to convince ex-premier Gordon Campbell of the merits, but that changed last summer under Premier Christy Clark when the Harmonized Sales Tax was defeated in the mail-in referendum.

Around the same time, ContainerWorld owner Dennis Chrismas hired a lobbyist to oppose any change, but his massive Richmond business is now in the tendering process. Exel's Oct. 6, 2009 "Project Last Spike" internal memo pondered taking over ContainerWorld or forming an alliance with ContainerWorld, which has a 20-year business relationship with Italy-based, Exel sister company Giorgio Gori.

"Until they are prepared to lay open this process and take a strong second look at it and take this forward to the electorate and make this an election issue in May 2013, I think the whole process should be scrapped," said Maurine Karagianis, NDP liquor critic. "This process does not meet the criteria for the voters of B.C. in any way, shape or form and is suspect from all angles."

Booze is a very big business with benefits, but it also has substantial costs. Stockwell calls it a paradox whereby the original reasons for government control -- to protect and promote health and safety -- have been discarded in favour of raising revenue.

"The only force that keeps the monopoly in place are the unions in which the people working in the stores are employed," he said.

Privatization fueled consumption: BC health officer

Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer, wrote Public Health Approach to Alcohol Policy in December 2008, an update to a 2002 report. In the six years between reports, the number of retail outlets grew to 1,294 from 786. They were mostly licensed private retailers.

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