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Liquor review report finally released after government's deliberate spills

Beer and wine are not coming to corner stores in British Columbia. But there may be stores within supermarkets.

Beaches and parks won't become free-for-all, bring-your-own-bottle zones. But licensed beer gardens at summer festivals will go fenceless.

The B.C. government's liquor policy review finally ended Jan. 31, with the publication of a 56-page report and its 73 recommendations.

The Liberals had released hints of what was in the report in previous months, a drips-and-drops strategy NDP liquor critic Shane Simpson called a communications ploy intended distract the media and public from other political controversies.

The theme of a Jan. 31 news conference marking the report's release was cutting red tape -- 37 of the 73 recommendations fall under that heading, almost twice as many as the 18 in the protecting and promoting health and safety category.

John Yap, who headed up the review, boasted of 65 stakeholder meetings -- closed-door audiences he held with vintners, brewers, distillers, lobbyists and Liberal donors -- during the 87-day review. The government claimed a social media victory with 4,365 website comments and 3,587 emails received. There was not a single public hearing; Kelowna MLA Norm Letnick hosted Yap at a public meeting, but no minutes were made available.

The report said B.C.'s liquor industry is worth $2 billion, from sales, taxes and indirect revenue and it claimed 800,000 tourists make wine-related purchases in B.C. "That is more people than came to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics," the report said.

The report didn't attempt to put a dollar figure on the cost to the economy of alcohol-related crime, punishment, injuries, illnesses and death. It did mention 21,542 hospitalizations and 1,191 deaths due to alcohol in 2011.

Stricter enforcement to keep minors from drinking and regulation of home delivery services were recommended. For those who have a beef with liquor board decisions, a new appeals body could be coming. The report said the government should lobby the federal government for health warning labels on bottles.

Happy hours are also coming, but how much happiness will actually ensue? Beer prices may not be a big bargain because minimum prices will be set and may be based on the amount of alcohol content. The higher the percentage, the higher the cost.

A new licence class for stadiums and arenas was recommended, as was the sale of hard liquor in the stands at places like Rogers Arena, where Canucks Sports and Entertainment management lobbied for such a move. All ages concerts in licensed establishments will be permitted.

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said the government accepts all recommendations, but that doesn't necessarily mean all will become policy or law. She said amendments would be coming "at our earliest opportunity." The B.C. legislature reopens Feb. 11.

The report did not mention B.C.'s historic troubles with holding its liquor. Exhibit A: Stanley Cup riot 1994. Exhibit B: Stanley Cup riot 2011. There was no review of the age of majority.

Meanwhile, the government continues to deliberate on the transformation of the Liquor Distribution Branch into a Crown corporation or agency with its own board. In Alberta and Ontario, taxpayer-owned liquor agencies not only have their own boards, but they're merged with the province's lotteries and casinos agencies.

LDB, with Cleveland-based consultant Sedlak, is looking for new warehouse space elsewhere in the Lower Mainland. The east Vancouver property is in the pre-sale stage through Colliers.

Yap's report recommended vaguely that LDB warehousing and distribution systems be modernized and streamlined and the wholesale ordering processes improved with more efficiency to clients.

Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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