Ontario’s priorities questioned over $225M alcohol sales expansion

Jun 6, 2024 | News, Provincial News

Ontario has expedited its plan to expand the province’s alcoholic beverage marketplace.

Premier Doug Ford said that starting in August consumers can purchase alcoholic beverages and coolers at grocery stores that sell beer or wine.

By the end of October 2024, every convenience, big-box and grocery store in Ontario can sell wine, beer, cider and ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages.

The Beer Store and the former Liberal government originally negotiated a deal in 2015 that granted the latter the sole authority to sell 12- and 24-packs of beer.

This exclusive agreement was set to expire by the end of 2025.

“We are delivering on our commitment to give consumers in Ontario the convenience and choice every other Canadian enjoys, and we’re doing so even sooner than we’d originally promised,” Ford said in a press release.

Critics argue the latest move by Ford to pay off the Beer Store with $225 million to expedite this deal, appears to be more of a political gimmick than a necessary line of action.

Estimates say that the overall cost may exceed the original $225 million price tag.

Bonnie Crombie, Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, criticized the Ford government on the social media app, X.

She said she would like the deal examined more closely and the amount that taxpayers will be responsible for paid for confirmed by Ontario’s financial watchdog.

“Just to get beer in the corner stores one year earlier? It’s a billion-dollar, booze boondoggle,” Crombie said in a post on X.

Stephanie Bowman, MPP for Don Valley West, echoed Crombie’s sentiments and called out the Ford government on X.

“ERs are closing, students are struggling, & food bank use is at an all-time high. What does this con government decide? Give away about a billion dollars of taxpayer money to big corporations for something we get anyway in a year,” Bowman said in the post.

Despite Ford’s reassurance, many health-care professionals have raised concerns regarding potential public health risks.

Brianna Davis, a health-care worker and former student nurse with CAMH, said she found the government’s decision to expand alcohol sales alarming.

Davis said she feared it could negatively impact the well-being and health of Ontarians.

“Alcohol dependence can exacerbate physical and mental conditions, which could lead to increased hospital admissions and readmissions, which in turn, will cause a strain on healthcare services,” Davis said.

Davis said increased alcohol accessibility could lead to a rise in certain mental health conditions.

“I have seen psychotic disorders induced by substance abuse, particularly alcohol-induced psychosis,” she said.

She said alcohol use is commonly seen in conjunction with disorders like depression, PTSD and bipolar disorder.

Davis said she believes health-care workers are highly critical in educating the public about the health risks of increased alcohol consumption.

“Psychiatrists, nurses and other healthcare providers must act as educators and advocates. They need to promote health literacy and inform individuals about the harmful effects of substance abuse and alcohol dependence,” she said.

Davis said current clinic and hospital protocols address mental health issues related to alcohol addiction through psychiatric evaluations, medication and therapy.

However, Davis said a more significant change is needed at the political and community levels to prevent relapse and support healthier lifestyles.

“While the current protocols are effective, expanded alcohol sales put a greater risk for relapse, she said.

Enforcement of new regulations is overseen by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO). Retailers whose licenses are revoked cannot reapply for two years.

“As an agency of the provincial government, LCBO is committed to supporting government policy changes and helping new and existing business customers navigate the phased approach to a more open and competitive marketplace,” a spokesperson for the LCBO said.

They said they will also work closely with AGCO to onboard new convenience stores and grocers and support them in becoming responsible private alcohol retailers.

Despite these assurances, public health organizations, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), have voiced concerns.

In a press release, CAMH criticized the government’s prioritization of convenience over the health and well-being of Ontarians.

“There are already more than 6,000 alcohol-attributable deaths a year in Ontario, and the changes announced today will significantly increase this number,” CAMH stated in the press release.

CAMH said the main driver of alcohol-related harm is convenience, noting that decades of research show increased ease of access leads to more consumption and, in turn, could cause more injury.

“Young people – children, adolescents, and young adults – are among the most affected,” the release stated. “Alcohol-related harms include an increase in alcohol dependence, chronic diseases, injuries, violence, suicide, mental health concerns, and social issues like intimate partner violence and impaired driving.”

CAMH suggested the government could take steps to mitigate these harms. An example they suggested was allowing municipalities to opt out of the system and imposing restrictions similar to those for cannabis stores.

Adding to the concerns, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, representing LCBO workers, reacted strongly to Ford’s announcement in a press release.

“Earlier this spring Ford promised he’d never sell the LCBO, yet he’s clearly trying to sell us all down the river with this move,” said JP Hornick, president of OPSEU.

“Expanding private alcohol sales is just the latest scheme to transfer public funds into the pockets of CEOs and Ford’s friends while further gutting our public services,” Hornick said.

The LCBO said it invests around $2.5 billion in revenues directly into public services like health care and education each year.

The Ontario government’s decision marks the largest expansion of alcohol retail since the end of prohibition almost 100 years ago.

The decision aspires to introduce up to 8,500 new stores where alcohol can be purchased.