Ford government’s bottomless determination to convert our drinking into private profit should concern us all

Posted on November 29, 2023 in Health Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors
November 29, 2023.   By Daniel Myran, Contributor

Decades of research show that making alcohol cheaper and easier to purchase unsurprisingly leads to higher levels of drinking and increases in harm.

Change is in the air in Ontario. In the next few weeks, Queen’s Park is expected to initiate the process of substantially altering the way alcohol is sold in Ontario.

The change is being expressed as improving convenience for Ontarians. We should be clear about the motives at play. Our drinking is big business — almost $10 billion a year — and multiple players are fighting to grab a larger slice of that pie. And while the industry winners may be about to waltz off with a record windfall, the likely losers — the Ontario taxpayers — may be left to deal with increasing social and health harms, all on a shrinking budget.

Proponents of these changes talk about “modernizing alcohol laws.” They conjure up images of relaxed summer days where you might pop into a nearby convenience store to grab a bottle of wine on the way to a picnic or grab a case of beer at a big box store while picking up last-minute supplies for a barbecue. According to them, it is currently too inconvenient and expensive to buy alcohol in Ontario, and the government is going to fix that by dramatically increasing the number of places that sell alcohol and allowing competition between retailers to sell alcohol for less.

Along the way, they will likely reduce the role of the LCBO and allow more of the share of profits from selling alcohol to flow to private interests. While these changes will certainly make buying alcohol more convenient, their impact won’t stop there. Decades of research from Canada and internationally have shown that making alcohol cheaper and easier to purchase unsurprisingly leads to higher levels of drinking and consequent increases in harm and the burden on our health system. The evidence also supports that a bigger role for the government (i.e., organizations like the LCBO) in selling alcohol means less harmful drinking.

Canada has just released its new alcohol guidance, concluding that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. The government’s proposed changes, which in essence encourage Ontarians to drink more, are in direct conflict with that guidance and the staggering toll that alcohol already takes on our health.

In 2020, alcohol was estimated to be directly responsible for 6,202 deaths in Ontario (5.4 per cent of total deaths), the highest number on record. Alcohol use places an enormous burden on the health system, directly causing 47,500 hospitalizations and 258,000 ED visits in 2020 — again around 5 per cent of total health care visits. This strain on the health system and deaths from alcohol only grew during the pandemic as Canadians increased their drinking. These figures are just the harms directly traced to alcohol, such as liver cirrhosis or needing care for alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol use, even at low levels, increases the risk of many chronic health problems, including cancer — for example, an estimated 7 per cent of breast cancer cases in Ontario. Alcohol also causes enormous social harms (costing an estimated $4.2 billion in 2020) through violence, crime and lost work productivity.

Ontario has argued that loosening alcohol regulations is a way to spur economic growth and create jobs. It’s faulty logic. Yes, increasing retail access and alcohol sales will result in some new jobs (a fairly underwhelming 9,100 by their estimate) and the growth of new businesses, but every additional drink sold will also incur a cost to society ($2.05 USD according to one US figure). In 2014 after subtracting the direct health and social costs of alcohol use from government alcohol revenue, Ontario ran a deficit of $1.4 billion per year. These changes would allow the growth of that deficit, currently 74.8 per cent of alcohol sales in Ontario occur through the LCBO and its distribution system, which brings in $2.55 billion a year in revenue to the province. Increasing access to private retail sales and distribution means less money coming back to the taxpayer.

Ontario seems to be poised to give up substantial tax revenue, and risk increases in alcohol-related harms in exchange for the ability to buy alcohol in a few extra places around town. It’s not even clear that this is what people want. The government has been forthcoming about the large number of alcohol industry stakeholders they have met with and their strong desire for change. The one consultation on what people in Ontario want has not been released to the public. It may just turn out that improving the “convenience” of buying alcohol in Ontario is a solution without a problem with a hangover for years to come.

Daniel Myran is an assistant professor with the uOttawa Department of Family Medicine and an investigator with the Bruyère Research Institute.

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