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Corner store booze sales sacrifice common good

  • December 21, 2023

Coming to an Ontario corner store near you: beer, wine, cocktails and other low-alcohol beverages, in whatever pack size you want. These libations will also be available in grocery stores, big-box locations  and some gas stations.

The Ontario government says alcohol will be sold in up to 8,500 new locations across the province, “the largest expansion of consumer choice and convenience since the end of prohibition almost 100 years ago.” As Premier Doug Ford told reporters, “We’ve got to start treating people like adults here in the province.”

“Getting with the times” and “treating us like adults” have long been justifications for discontinuing measures meant to protect society from harms. “Convenience” and “choice” have now been added to the mix to make more readily available a substance toxic to human health.

The 2023 Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health is unequivocal on this point: “Research shows that no amount or kind of alcohol is good for your health.”

The science-based guidelines state that more than two drinks a week increases the risk of developing a range of cancers including breast, colon, pancreas and liver, while seven or more drinks per week “significantly” increases the risk of heart disease or stroke. Consuming more than two drinks at one time is associated with increased injuries and violence.

Public Health Ontario paints a damning picture of the impact of alcohol abuse: an estimated 4,330 deaths, 22,009 hospitalizations and 194,692 emergency department visits each year. Regular alcohol use is linked to clinical depression. Risk of suicide increases for alcohol users who have a mental illness. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) notes how alcohol abuse impacts families and children through violence in the home, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and childhood trauma, among other ills.

Despite the dangers, alcohol use is widespread. The Alcohol Rehab Help information website lists some sobering statistics updated in April 2023: 66 per cent of Canadians aged 15 or older reported consuming alcohol at least once in the previous 30 days; six million Canadians aged 12 and over report drinking heavily at least once a month; and about 21 per cent of the Canadian population will meet the criteria for alcohol addiction in their lifetime.

How much more will these numbers increase if people can pop into their neighbourhood corner store to purchase their alcohol instead of having to make a special trip to a provincially controlled outlet? This “convenience” is especially cruel to those struggling with alcohol addiction.

The Ontario government promises a five-year, $10 million “social responsibility” public health fund “to ensure alcohol continues to be sold and consumed safely in the expanded marketplace.” There are no details other than vague references to staff training, hours of sale and posting “warning signs.”

Not expanding alcohol sales would be the best approach if the Ontario government was truly serious about public health Says CMHA-Ontario CEO Camille Quenneville, “Without clearly outlined goals, strategies and sufficient funding to reduce alcohol-related harms, this retail expansion will put additional strain on an already overloaded community mental health and addictions system.”

Selling alcoholic beverages also puts pressure on convenience store employees, many of whom are young, minimum-wage earners. Even with training, it might be difficult for these workers to ensure customers are of legal drinking age or to be able to deal with rowdy customers who choose to drink in or near the store.

The key question is, why are “convenience” and “choice” trumping public health and safety? Who benefits? Not youth, nor the person struggling with alcohol addiction and their families, nor the victims of domestic violence and drunk driving accidents, nor even the “adult” who consumes more than two drinks a week.

Perhaps it’s the business community who comes out on top. Ford has overlooked one thing: sometimes being an “adult” means sacrificing a bit of convenience for the common good.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer specializing in research at an Ontario university.)

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