Responding to the province's plans to loosen liquor regulations, a new report from Toronto's chief medical officer finds the government is ill-prepared to deal with higher rates of alcohol-related harms that come with increased access.
The government announced plans in its April budget to expand alcohol sales to corner stores, to allow alcohol service starting at 9 a.m. instead of 11 a.m., to allow tailgating at some sporting events and to allow municipalities to make their own laws around public alcohol consumption.
The report, released by Toronto Public Health (TPH), finds that these measures were announced without "a comprehensive strategy to address the health and social harms of alcohol use."
"While alcohol is part of many celebrations in life, it also causes health risks, including some cancers. This is why responsible use is so important and why we are calling for a comprehensive provincial alcohol strategy focusing on prevention, harm reduction, treatment and enforcement," Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said.
"Overall, the multitude and pace of the proposed changes to alcohol regulation outlined in the 2019 Ontario Budget challenge efforts to promote responsible drinking and to address the potential economic cost of alcohol consumption," she states in the report. "Given the Ontario context, including increasing levels of alcohol consumption and lack of a comprehensive provincial alcohol harm mitigation strategy, there is a high likelihood that these changes will negatively impact public health and safety."
The Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA) released its own assessment of the province's alcohol plans, finding that the measures "significantly increase the potential for alcohol-related harms and appear inconsistent with the provincial government’s stated goals of balancing the modernization of the sale and distribution of alcohol with public health and safety."
De Villa writes that TPH is "in agreement with OPHA's assessment."
De Villa pointed out that the report from the province's alcohol special advisor recommends the government works with public health experts to decrease the likelihood of social costs. In the report, de Villa asks that since many of the changes affect municipalities directly, the Ministry of Finance consult public health units in its alcohol-related plans, and adopt the following measures, proposed by the OPHA, to mitigate harm:
- Expanding slowly, with careful attention to evaluating the impact, and addressing health and safety issues.
- Ensuring adequate funding for the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario such that it has sufficient capacity to enforce the Liquor License Act and regulations in the expanded private retail environment as well as new oversight responsibility inherent with other regulation changes.
- Requiring municipal government endorsement of a retail sales license, including the posting of a public notice of a licence application, to ensure that new access points are in the interest of the community.
- Requiring a site and community safety assessment of new retail access points.
- Requiring minimum site safety and security measures for new retail access points (e.g. interior and exterior lighting, video monitoring). The Registrar's Standards for Cannabis Retail Stores may be a starting point for convenience stores selling alcohol.
- Requiring the same operating parameters as grocery stores that are licensed to sell alcohol, including (a) minimum age of 18 years and SmartServe Training for staff involved in selling or sampling alcohol, (b) prescribed hours of sale, (c) rules for the display of product including securing product outside of prescribed sale hours, (d) restrictions on marketing and financial inducements including agreements with manufacturers and the exchange of loyalty points as payment for alcohol, (e) wholesale purchase from the LCBO, (f) price structure, (g) restrictions on product format and alcohol content (e.g. sales of spirits are not permitted), and (h) posting of signage related to Sandy's Law.
The Ministry of Finance said responsibility on the alcohol file "is and will continue to be a top priority for our government," adding that its plans are informed by a "comprehensive review of the alcohol sector."
The Ministry of Health said that "while the government trusts Ontarians to make smart, mature and responsible choices when it comes to alcohol use, it maintains a strong commitment to social responsibility," including educating the public about harms related to alcohol use and funding ConnexOntario, which provides information about and referrals to addiction treatment services in Ontario.
Toronto Public Health had previously feuded with the government over its planned cuts to public health units across the province, which it reversed in late May. The government's decision to reduce the number of local public health units from 35 to 10 and reduce its share of funding for public health programs kicked off a month-long firestorm that saw municipalities across Ontario, as well as former health ministers from every major party, band together to call for the restoration of previous funding.
The government had also come under criticism for the part of its alcohol plan that involved tearing up the province's contract with The Beer Store in order to allow corner stores to sell beer. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned that the move would scare away potential investors looking for a place to do business where contracts are respected. And some legal experts caution that it might not be as easy as the province thinks to get itself out of a contract that specifically disallows their planned manoeuvre.