Don’t underestimate risks of expanding beer, wine sales

14 Apr 2015
Toronto Star
[Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition’s Alcohol Working Group]
From the way it’s been reported in much of the mainstream press, one might think that the proposed plan to sell beer and wine in grocery stores was a simple change in the distribution of orange juice. Very little debate. No cost-benefit analysis balancing the possible financial gains against the mounting evidence that increasing the availability of alcohol also increases the costs it levies on our society.

Let us for a moment consider alcohol for what it truly is — as opposed to the ubiquitous recreation aid that we’re accustomed to. It is in many ways a drug. For some, it’s addictive. For anyone, sufficiently large doses can be mentally impairing and carcinogenic. The Canadian Cancer Society website will tell you that alcohol is a proven risk factor for larynx, esophageal, colorectal, liver and breast cancers, and that drinking heavily enough (say, an average of four standard drinks per day), can triple your chances of developing oral cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, alcohol is associated with at least 200 diseases and “injury conditions”; a category which includes car accidents, murder and suicide. In a world that is grappling with heart disease, AIDS and Ebola, alcohol is still labelled as the “leading risk factor for death among adult males” by the WHO.

But this “risk factor” is also an ancient, much-loved part of many meals, romantic evenings, joyful events and family gatherings. It can be lethal, yet it is drunk safely and responsibly by thousands of people every day. Clearly, we’re not returning to prohibition any time soon, but it is equally clear that we need to take a longer, harder look at how we regulate and distribute this multi-faceted substance.

There’s no denying that alcohol consumption inflicts real, financial costs on Canadians: those 200 health problems noted by the WHO are paid for by OHIP (in Ontario), which is paid for through our taxes. We pay for every alcohol-induced hospital stay, every chemotherapy treatment, every ambulance that responds to a drunk-driving accident and every police breathalyzer test. Through health care and other services, we also pay for the care of the victims of fetal alcohol syndrome and domestic violence, while our economy pays for the lost productivity of the impaired and addicted.

The World health Organization discovered years ago that many of these problems increase in frequency when alcohol becomes more readily available — as it will, if grocery stores start to carry it.

Human misery aside, the price tag for the medical, legal, and other social expenses of alcohol exceeds any government income from its sales.

A 2012 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Parkland Institute determined that the government of British Columbia lost around $60 million from its partially privatized alcohol sales over the course of 2008, while Alberta (another privatized province) lost between $93 million and $1.1 billion in 2002. Taken together, the provincial governments of Canada are thought to have lost at least $3.6 billion from alcohol costs in 2002.

Alberta and B.C. also provide useful lessons when it comes to underage drinking. In both provinces, tests involving “undercover” minors suggest that the privately owned establishments are more lax in their I.D. checks of youthful-looking customers. While this might not necessarily be the case in Ontario, proper oversight and policing of licensed grocery stores represents yet another expense — one first incurred by the stores themselves, but then likely passed on to customers in order to keep pulling in a profit.

This is not a dogmatic teetotaller rant, but a plea for a proper, inclusive, long-term economic assessment. Perhaps it is time for the government to smooth the path for local craft brewers.

Perhaps, if all of the numbers were tallied, and all angles of the Ontario context taken into account, some form of alcohol privatization would still make economic sense in the long run. But first those numbers need to be crunched, and the costs and benefits debated and weighed in public.

Of course, it would be nice to think that our politicians are doing this as we speak, but the recent government record (be it federal, provincial or municipal) for this sort of full-cost accounting is not a good one.

Ashley Hall and Jessica Nelson are both members of the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition’s Alcohol Working Group.