Costs of liquor outweigh its revenues in B.C., study says

B.C. deserves credit for cracking down on drunk drivers, but could do far more to reduce alcohol-related deaths and injuries, a new study shows.

The University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research found that B.C.’s alcohol pricing and regulatory controls are among the worst in the country — even as its impaired-driving policies represent a “gold standard.”

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“There are lots of things that B.C. is doing quite well on,” said Kara Thompson, co-author of the study. “But we’re still achieving only half our potential to reduce alcohol-related harms and costs.”

She said those costs are significant and have been on the rise in recent years.

“In the last year alone, B.C. had over 200 alcohol-related deaths and over 20,000 hospitalizations as a result of alcohol use,” Thompson said.

“As it stands now, the direct costs from alcohol in B.C. as result of hospitalizations and enforcement costs exceed our revenue. So we’re not making much on alcohol right now.”

One of the problems is that the cost of alcohol in B.C. has failed to keep pace with inflation and has become cheaper in comparison to other goods. The province now has some of the lowest prices in the country.

“The evidence tells us that if we make alcohol cheaper and easier to access, that there are going to be more deaths and there are going to more injuries,” Thompson said.

In addition, the province fails to charge more for stronger drinks. In some cases, spirits with a high alcohol content are cheaper than a beer or other beverages with lower content.

The centre suggests B.C. set a minimum price of $1.50 per standard drink purchased at a liquor store, adjust prices to keep pace with inflation, and charge more for drinks with higher alcohol content. B.C. also needs to do a better job of informing the public about the dangers of alcohol and how they can reduce their risk of harm, it says.

On the positive side, the study found that B.C. leads the country in a number of areas, including its legal drinking age of 19, its server-training programs, and its policies for identifying at-risk drinkers. Thompson said new enforcement measures against drunk drivers have also succeeded by reducing alcohol-related fatalities by 40 per cent.

In addition, government deserves credit for moving its liquor control and licensing branch and liquor distribution branch to the Justice Ministry from the Ministry of Energy and Mines, Thompson said.

“That’s a real positive shift. It really says that B.C. is starting to look at alcohol through a public health and safety lens.”

The study was released the same day that B.C. launched a review of provincial liquor laws by asking for input from industry groups. British Columbians will be asked for their views in September.

John Yap, parliamentary secretary for liquor policy reform, is expected to submit a report to Justice Minister Suzanne Anton by Nov. 25. The report will be released to the public.

“Right now, some of B.C.’s liquor laws go back many years,” Anton said in a statement.

“In concert with industry and citizens, we are looking to make practical and responsible changes that promote consumer convenience and economic growth in the province, with a strong eye to maintaining public safety and protecting the health of our citizens.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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