An Initial Response to the Government’s Green Paper on Liquor Options

Today, the Government of Saskatchewan released its’ Green Paper,“Future Options for Liquor Retailing in Saskatchewan” in anticipation of a province-wide liquor privatization debate. Firstly, the government is to be commended for what is a rather comprehensive document that gives the people of Saskatchewan a distinct set of options to consider for  the future of liquor retailing in the province. Unfortunately, the government’s obvious preference for the privatization option rears its ugly head again and again throughout the document. Most flagrant, is despite recognizing that arguments for and against privatization tend to focus on government revenues, price/selection and social harms, the government spends an awful lot of time on the first two and precious little on the third.

Indeed, the “Social Impact of Privatization” section of the Green Paper consists of four whole sentences. While the government at least admits that there are obvious social harms that stem from alcohol consumption, it nevertheless maintains “there is no conclusive evidence that government owned and operated liquor stores reduce social harm.” That would certainly come as a surprise to those in the medical research community that look at alcohol consumption as a public health issue. Here is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Task Force which consists of some of the most distinguished medical researchers in the United States:

“Based on its charge to identify effective disease and injury prevention measures, the Community Preventive Services Task Force recommends against the further privatization of alcohol sales in settings with current government control of retail sales. This finding is based on strong evidence that privatization results in increased per capita alcohol consumption, a well-established proxy for excessive consumption and related harms.”

Or how about the British Columbia Provincial Health Officer: 

“Best practice policies for influencing the physical availability of alcohol include using government-run monopolies to distribute alcohol at the retail level, setting limits on hours and days of sale, and imposing outlet density restrictions.”

Or the Swedish Institute of National Health:

“There are no examples of where a private system, regardless of how that system was created and is regulated, has led to lower levels of alcohol consumption or fewer alcohol harms compared to an earlier state retail monopoly. This is a result of the inherent tensions between an free market approach to alcohol and the more regulated and controlled approach of an alcohol retail monopoly.”

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health:

“A review of the international evidence — with a focus on Canadian experiences – indicates that retail alcohol monopolies, with a strong public health agenda and combined with alcohol regulation, have the potential to contribute significantly to the prevention of alcohol-related problems.”

Quebec National Institute of Public Health: 

“State monopolies, such as the SAQ in Québec, can limit alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems; conversely, elimination of these monopolies can increase total alcohol consumption. State monopoly is an effective preventive measure as long as it carries social responsibility and pursues public health objectives.”

Or worried about the social harm of under-age access to alcohol? Here’s the B.C. Provincial Health Officer again:

“As these data reveal, there are significant differences in rates of compliance with age verification protocols across the various types of outlets, with government liquor stores performing substantially better than licensed private retail or agency stores in the province. Given the large increase in private and agency stores in recent years, this likely has important implications for youth access to alcohol in B.C.”

So there’s a reason the Saskatchewan government does not appear to want to view liquor policy through a public health lens – privatization of alcohol simply does not work as a public health policy. The Green Paper does a reasonable  job of laying out the implications of the different liquor retailing options the government wants us to consider. Here’s my challenge to the government; also include the public health implications of each option. Then we can have a debate.

Simon Enoch is the Director of CCPA-Saskatchewan.

3 comments

  1. Great catch, Albert.

    You can’t really trust American sources for alcohol info in general. It’s such a maze of deeply-held ideology born of a complicated history, with prohibitionist groups posing as scientific organizations. You really need to be culturally literate to parse it all.

    I really find the CCPA is out of their depth on this topic, and it’s bizarre to read these screeds mixed in with their normally excellent analysis. There are basic errors in this article; they seem unaware that the US is far stricter on age & ID requirements than Canada, despite being largely privatized, undermining the argument that private stores can’t follow age laws. And then there are larger, more general errors, like the assumption that higher consumption necessarily equates to social problems, when in reality problems with alcohol are almost entirely culturally determined. In other words, according to this article, the US should be a paradise free of alcohol-related problems, and Italy, Greece, and France should be in collapse from rampant alcoholism.

    I really hope the CCPA will leave this discussion to people who know more about it. Or at least apply the same analysis they apply to their economic articles – like maybe a society that encourages economic marginalization, isolation, depression, mixed up with puritanical “the poor are responsible for their lot” doctrine has more to do with alcohol problems than what hours a store is open or whether a bottle of wine is affordable or not. I’m not sure “ban the poors from the demon liquor!” is an analysis befitting an otherwise respectable organization like the CCPA.

  2. I am currently doing a research paper that pretty much determines irregardless of whether you have a state monopoly system or a private license system, wider cultural and economic factors determine rate of alcohol use disorders and alcohol dependency. You can run the numbers yourself in an excel spreadsheet by using figures from the World Health Organization here.

    http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/en/

    While higher prices for alcohol and inconvenient access can annoy moderate drinkers out of consuming alcohol, generally when it comes to addiction the per capita rate of problems related to alcohol is pretty much unaffected by government control of sales and distribution.

    As well, if the claims being made that private sales are dangerous for social harm were true, Alberta would have higher rates of underage drinking, higher rates of drunk driving, higher crime rates, and higher rates of binge drinking and alcohol related disorders than Saskatchewan. On all accounts, Saskatchewan has generally had worse outcomes, according to Health Canada and Statistics Canada.

    When it comes to drunk driving in fact, Saskatchewan has double the rate of offenses as Alberta.

    So I would suggest the CCPA should turn its attention to making suggestions on how to reform the SLGA to compete in a new mixed public/private system rather than try to twist the narrative with a fear-mongering campaign. You will be a better servant to the SLGA employees and the SGEU union you are trying to represent.

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