Fletcher: B.C. liquor laws are finally more effective

As with many other issues, there is one reality for urban B.C. and another for the rest of us.

Here’s a summer scene being played out all over North America. Family van pulls up to the corner store to stock up on a few camping essentials—pop, chips, hot dogs, a case of beer and a bottle of vodka.

Not in B.C. you say? It happens every day at rural agency liquor stores around the province. As with many other issues, there is one reality for urban B.C. and another for the rest of us. Selling booze in grocery stores would presumably create anarchy in B.C cities and towns, but villagers and their visitors somehow manage it, just as everyone does across the line in Washington or Alaska.

These rural agency stores are “flyspeck operators,” sniffs an acquaintance who spent his career as a union activist in government liquor stores. Picture dusty old bottles on a rickety shelf, greedy owners and poorly trained clerks more likely to sell to under-age drinkers.

Similar generalizations can be heard about the hundreds of private liquor stores that have popped up around B.C. since they were legalized. And in fact there have been more violations in private stores, revealed in sting operations run by liquor inspectors. In the year ended March 31, 54 private stores were caught selling to a minor, for an 84 per cent compliance rate. Only four government stores were caught, a pass rate of 96 per cent. Five rural agency stores were tested, and one flunked.

But here is the telling statistic. In 2010, the government allowed liquor inspectors to employ actual minors to test stores. Previously, they hired people who looked young but were old enough to buy alcohol. As late as 2009, two out of three stores (government or otherwise) sold to them. Problem is, that’s not an actual offence.

Now liquor inspectors send in undercover teens, and relieve them of the evidence when they are allowed to buy booze. The watchdog now has teeth, and compliance has jumped.

The government glossed over the poorer performance of private stores. But in fairness, three times as many private stores as government ones were targeted in the new inspections, and the gap is narrow. Government stores also have a huge built-in financial advantage in their wholesale rate, and are generally overstaffed by private sector standards.

The B.C. Liberals also moved this spring to make rural agency stores easier to establish. Regulation changes brought the minimum population served from 300 down to 200, and eliminated a vague requirement for a “bona fide community” to exist around the store.

Meanwhile, the big booze story this year is cabinet minister Rich Coleman’s plan to sell B.C.’s warehouse and distribution monopoly to a private contractor. The B.C. Government Employees’ Union has protested, despite assurances that their jobs will continue. B.C.’s burgeoning craft beer industry has looked to Alberta’s all-private model and predicts higher costs.

The B.C. Liberal government has been on the defensive from the start, with the NDP pointing to the paper trail of lobbyists with an apparent inside track. It’s great politics, but it matters little to consumers in an increasingly competitive but heavily taxed business.

Another new regulation took effect this summer, creating a $525 fine for adults serving minors, on the job, at home or as a bootlegger. Parents who provide booze for their own under-age children are exempted. Previously, penalties applied only to licensed establishments.

If the issue really is public safety and teen binge drinking, the key job for government is to regulate sales effectively. Once that is done, no justification remains for government liquor sales.

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