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Alcohol sales: an imbalance between convenience and public health

Apr 20, 2015
Ontario has moved recently toward wider and more liberal access to alcohol. Under pressure from commercial lobbies and at the recommendation of a panel headed by former TD Bank CEO Ed Clark, the province has now announced it will bring the sale of beer into grocery stores, with the potential for wine to follow.

By Dr. Lisa Simon

Ontario has moved recently toward wider and more liberal access to alcohol. Under pressure from commercial lobbies and at the recommendation of a panel headed by former TD Bank CEO Ed Clark, the province has now announced it will bring the sale of beer into grocery stores, with the potential for wine to follow.

It was a popular announcement in some quarters, but it runs counter to a trend in policies that have taken us in the direction of good health. One only need look to our society’s progress on seat belts, or impaired driving, or smoking in public spaces, to be aware of how laws can positively impact our health and safety.

Our society regards drinking as a social norm, often without much attention to negative health and social impacts. However, alcohol is responsible for substantial harm. It is known to be the second largest cause of death and disease in high income countries like Canada. This toll is experienced not only by those who tend to consume several drinks on one occasion, but also by those who drink small amounts regularly. As little as 1 drink a day on average can increase the risk for developing several types of cancer. And the negative impacts of alcohol can touch entire communities, through violence, crime and social disorder. Research has calculated that, in 2002, alcohol-related health care, enforcement and lost productivity cost Ontario more than $5.3 billion. Revenue generated by alcohol sales and taxes fell $456 million short of that total.

Changes in recent years to alcohol availability have focused on public convenience and economic stimulus, without giving similar focus to impacts on the health of the public. In 2011, the Liquor Licence Act was modified to allow wider alcohol availability. Then, in 2014, changes were made to allow the selling of wine at farmer’s markets.  While the latest announcement of beer in grocery stores does include some responsible steps to control how beer will be sold in grocery stores, these steps aren’t able to counter the well-researched link between increased accessibility to alcohol and increased harm. Where similar choices to broaden availability have been made in other provinces or countries, consumption has risen significantly, resulting in heightened costs in dollars, illness, injuries, and lives.

 If you have concerns about these issues, take them to your local MPP. We must all encourage our governments to pursue public policy that values health, including a culture of moderation on alcohol.

Dr. Lisa Simon is one of Simcoe Muskoka’s associate medical officers of health.


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