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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.