November 2, 2013 6:44 pm
Updated: November 2, 2013 6:47 pm

Mixing booze, politics a potent cocktail


Other than its approach to creating a liquefied natural gas industry and talking about growing the economy, the B.C. Liberal government is not particularly active when it comes to other initiatives.

It is not a government bent on fixing all kinds of things or sticking its nose in a lot of people’s business. When the legislature resumes sitting next February, don’t expect a heavy legislative package to be put before the house (except for bills relating directly to economic measures).

But there is a big exception to this light touch of lawmaking that will affect many people, and that is the looming overhaul of the province’s liquor laws.

Changing the rules when it comes to alcohol use is always tinged with controversy, which is why major changes rarely occur. The last significant overhaul was done for the province’s Expo 86, although there has been the occasional tweak since then.

B.C. Liberal MLA John Yap is heading up the review. The public consultation phase ended this week and so far Yap has received a blizzard of feedback.

The website set up for the review has had more than 50,000 hits (average stay: 10 minutes) while there have been more than 100 email submissions and almost 60 meetings with stakeholders.

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It’s not surprising there is enormous public interest in the subject, given the evolution of B.C.’s laws governing alcohol. Framed against modern attitudes, some of the old laws seem downright bizarre and would surprise most people today that they even exist.

For example, how many people know that vodka (today’s most popular distilled spirit) was banned in B.C. until 1960? Or that music was only permitted in drinking establishments in 1954? Sunday openings only became legal as a pilot project for Expo 86, and that was the year that import draft beer was first available. Women were prevented from working in government liquor stores until 1962.

But some odd laws still remain on the books, and I suspect many will disappear after Yap’s review becomes legislation.

Licensees currently can’t change their prices during the day, which means no “happy hour” specials, a common attraction in most U.S. establishments. I’m betting that rule will be relaxed.

As well, licensed clubs (such as a Legion) have to prepare their own food on site and are not allowed to contract that service out, which seems unreasonable if not archaic.

Did you know liquor tastings can only be done using plastic cups instead of glasses? Or that you can’t take a drink from a bar into a restaurant, even if the two establishments are adjoining? Most of these rules and regulations fall into the red tape category and may be more easily dealt with than other, more complex issues that have come up in the review.

The various stakeholders in the liquor industry – pubs, restaurants, private liquor stores, breweries, wineries, etc. – all have positions on a number of reforms they’d like to see implemented, or perhaps blocked.

A number of them are contradictory as well.

There seems to be a general consensus that B.C. has enough outlets – public and private – that dispense alcohol, although B.C.’s wine and craft brewer industries would like more access and visibility in the marketplace.

But there is one huge exception: Yap’s review has found the number-one hot button issue is that people want the convenience of buying wine or beer in their local grocery story.

The idea is viewed with considerable alarm by pubs and private store owners, who have invested huge amounts of capital in their operations and don’t want to be threatened by a mom and pop grocery on the corner.

This is just one of the more controversial issues Yap will have to address when he hands in his recommendations to Attorney General Suzanne Anton next month.

Another is that pub owners argue the pendulum has swung too far in favour of restaurants, and want the playing field levelled (one idea they are pushing is allowing minors on the premises during the day, to join a parent for lunch, perhaps).

Then there are the medical and law enforcement communities, which understandably are pushing back against any major loosening of rules that would make alcohol easier to obtain.

So how far will the B.C. Liberal government go in this sensitive area? Talking about LNG and the economy is easy.

But mixing alcohol with politics is a more potent cocktail, which is why the government will find it easier to cut red tape rather than make wholesale changes when it comes to booze.

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