B.C. VIEWS: Province eyes new round of liquor reforms

Liberal government seeks creative ways to liberalize alcohol sales without social damage

A new liquor licence for party buses could help reduce impaired driving.

A new liquor licence for party buses could help reduce impaired driving.

VICTORIA – The B.C. Liberal government is ordering up another round of liquor regulation changes, looking for ways to make life easier for businesses and customers without aggravating the health and social problems associated with alcohol.

Discussions with B.C.’s 10,000 liquor licence holders have identified a few problems that should be fixed. Going into a consultation phase that runs to October, the government is looking for answers to a few obvious questions, such as why it takes a pub or bar up to a year to get a licence.

Another question: why can a family with under-aged children go into a licensed restaurant for lunch, but can’t go to a pub and place the exact same food and drink order? This should be allowed, perhaps until the traditional 5 p.m. “happy hour” when the pub reverts to adults-only.

A couple of suggestions have come out of the healthy growth of B.C. wine, craft beer and distillery operations. Look for new licence opportunities for farmers’ markets to sell local beverages along with the produce and preserves.

Letters inviting suggestions from existing licence holders have gone out, and Richmond-Steveston MLA John Yap will be meeting this fall with industry groups, local governments, police, health and social policy organizations and First Nations in the fall.

A website will be put up in September so members of the public can have their say. Here’s my suggestion to start things off.

Recent incidents involving so-called “party buses” shone a light on this growing industry, The sudden death of a 16-year-old on a party bus outing in Surrey in February turned out not to be alcohol-related, but to no one’s surprise, open liquor was found aboard the bus.

Open liquor isn’t allowed in any vehicle, but perhaps a new kind of special event licence could be created for party buses. They have been viewed mainly as part of the solution to impaired driving, and the situation isn’t much different from a supervised event on a boat.

Here’s another suggestion. Gourmet cooking classes are becoming popular, with customers preparing and then enjoying their meals. Why not licence these establishments, at least so people can bring their own wine for dinner?

Both the B.C. Liberals and NDP have advocated for easing the archaic rules on inter-provincial trade in wine. B.C. lifted its restrictions on mail-order wine and has urged other provinces to follow suit.

There are a couple of reasons why this Prohibition-era structure persists. Liquor sales are a cash cow for provincial governments, and every case of wine brought in from elsewhere is lost profit for the provincial wholesale monopoly. Then there is the local industry lobby that would rather not add to its competition.

Premier Christy Clark pressed this point at the recent premiers’ meeting in Ontario wine country, bringing in the maximum amount of B.C. wine allowed under Ontario rules and urging free trade in Canadian wine.

The Toronto media drank it up, aghast that they were barred from ordering the latest Naramata Bench tipples directly. No movement so far from the Ontario government, in a province that has done well developing its own wine industry.

The B.C. government will no doubt be lobbied again to allow beer and wine sales in grocery and convenience stores. Our politicians show little interest in that, which is understandable. The B.C. Liberals don’t want to upset the private liquor stores they have nurtured for a decade, and the NDP would never risk annoying the government liquor store union.

There are more creative ways to liberalize alcohol sales.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.comTwitter: @tomfletcherbc Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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