My New Year’s resolution to blog more has clearly gone out the window, but in my defence I’ve been busy moving into my new office. Yes, I’m out of the common area and into my new 8×11 windowless shangri-la. In accordance with the vast importance of my recent transition to lower-middle-junior-semi-full-time-management I qualify for a small office with a door. I don’t have a doorknob yet, but I get a door. Which I’m allowed to close, in order to filter out distractions, coworkers, and the roomba. Clearly I’m climbing the corporate ladder.
All joking aside, it’s a lot easier to do my job without distraction now, even if it does mean I have to walk a little further to get my coffee.
I ran across an article this morning in our local paper that just made me roll my eyes: Health Unit Discourages Wine Sales at Farmers Markets. Long story short, the local health unit is opposed to the plan by the Vintner’s Quality Alliance (an organization made up of various Ontario wineries) to sell Ontario-made wine at Ontario farmer’s markets. Apparently there’s a pilot project allowing local wineries to sell locally with a minimum of licensing hassles.
If you read this blog outside of Canada — or even Ontario — there’s a couple of things you need to know about how alcohol is sold in this province. Basically, it’s a tightly-controlled (and heavily-taxed) government monopoly. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario (or LCBO) is a crown corporation which regulates and sells alcohol; there’s also a privately-owned beer-brewers’ conglomerate which has a virtual monopoly on the distribution of beer in the province due to various long-term contracts. The LCBO and Brewers Retail (the aforementioned conglomerate, consisting of Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors Brewing Co. and Sapporo Breweries Ltd.) have an almost total lock on the sale of alcohol in this province. If you want a drink, you have to go to an LCBO retail store, a Brewer’s Retail store, or a bar or restaurant that’s been licensed by the Liquor Licensing Board of Ontario… and then supplied by the LCBO and/or Brewers Retail.
In addition, most wineries and craft brewers have a retail store on their own premises that allow you to buy their product directly from the producer, but even that is heavily controlled by the government and requires you to drive out to their location, which means the customer is pretty much shit out of luck unless they’re nearby.
All of that controlled access and licensing is expensive, and oftentimes a small producer can’t afford the fees involved. While a government monopoly might be a logical system for controlling access to alcohol and ensuring quality — and extracting tax revenues — in terms of encouraging small business it is a piss-poor system. The Beer Stores run by Brewers Retail are a particularly shitty setup that serves to smother craft breweries in their cradles while syphoning huge profits out of the province and into private hands.
Lately, however, there’s been something of a revolt against the Beer Store monopoly and the status quo. A few years ago, the LCBO managed to wrest some control away from Brewers’ Retail and earned the concession that they could sell single cans or bottles of beer (and then later, six-packs) which triggered an explosion of craft-breweries across the province by creating a market that small brewers could actually access. A couple of distributors also won the right to open small retail outlets (mostly known under the genericized name “Wine Rack”) in grocery stores selling wines. There’s currently a lot of pressure on the government to dissolve it’s contract with the Brewers Retail conglomerate and open up the sale of beer in the province, particularly allowing the creation of “Wine Rack”-style craft beer stores for the promotion of Ontario-made beers.
The provincial market for alcohol has been sewn up so tightly for so long that it’s finally beginning to burst at the seams, and I for one am looking forward to it finally breaking loose. I like craft beers. I like Ontario wines from my local winery (which does not have a distribution deal with the LCBO, and therefore can only sell its product from their own premises just north of Buckhorn.) I like experimenting with new products, and I very much like knowing that when I spend my money it’s staying in this country, not going abroad and into the bank accounts of Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors Brewing or Sapporo Breweries. If I’m going to buy a product, I very much like knowing that I’m helping a small local business. And if I have to pay the kinds of heavy taxes associated with alcohol, at least I can be comforted by the knowledge that my taxes will help pay for stuff in this province (which is why I personally try and buy my beer at the LCBO and not The Beer Store.)
Which brings us back to selling alcohol at the farmer’s market: I think it’s a fantastic idea. I’d love to see wines from Kawartha Country Wines on display at the Saturday morning farmer’s market here in Peterborough. The Wife™ and I — especially in the summer weather — take a great deal of pleasure in a casual (and very early) Saturday morning stroll through the market, picking up fresh local produce and planning the meals for the week. Show me locally-made wines and beers in the same environment, and I’d be delighted to add them to my meal planning. I’d greatly enjoy learning about other local vintners and brewers, and trying their products. And I think that it would be a really good way for small producers to get their product in the public view. Apparently the pilot project has been running in Toronto, Elora, Kingsville, Kitchener, Milton, Orillia, Simcoe, Stratford, Welland and Windsor, and running successfully at that.
Does the government need to have a monopoly on alcohol sales? I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not an economist. But if there is a monopoly, necessary or not, I’d like it to act in a fashion that actually protects and supports the people who ultimately own it: the citizens of this province. I’d like to to encourage small business, and employ people in this province, and generate tax revenues for our citizens and not just profits for foreign companies.
So that’s my opinion on allowing small vintners and brewers to sell at farmers’ markets.
But what really made me roll my eyes at the Peterborough Examiner article was the prim statement by the local health unit’s representative, Monique Beneteau, that such projects “allow patrons to sample wine as early as 6 a.m. in front of impressionable youth, not something the health unit supports at a place that is supposed to be family-oriented.”
The article goes on to state: “We’re really looking at strategies to limit the availability of alcohol,” Beneteau said, explaining how the health unit wants citizens to think about drinking responsibly and that means alcohol “doesn’t need to be everywhere.”
Jesus. Fucking. Christ.
I’m all for drinking responsibly. I understand why the production, sale and consumption of alcohol needs to be regulated for the public good. I even understand why a health official would be looking at alcohol as a serious health issue, because alcohol abuse is a serious health issue.
But how paternalistic can you get? How puritanical are you going to be? You want to restrict the availability of alcohol — even the sight of it — because a little kid might see an adult consume alcohol and that might somehow turn them into an alcoholic? Give me a fucking break.
I grew up with alcohol. My parents both drank in moderation throughout my childhood, and thought nothing of it to allow a well-behaved child a sip of their beer or, as we got older, a small glass of wine on special occasions. By the time I was in my mid teens I was often allowed a whole beer after cutting the lawn. I was well-acquainted with wine and beer — even liquor — by the time I reached the legal drinking age. I knew good from bad, what wines paired with what foods, how to judge my limits and never, ever to drink and drive.
By the time I was able to buy my own, there was no longer any mystery to alcohol. It was just an ordinary part of life. When Beneteau complains that having alcohol available “normalizes it like it’s no big deal” my reaction is pretty much to say yes, yes it does. Because it is normal. It really isn’t a big deal.
I do sympathize with health officials who have to deal with the consequences of problem drinking. But alcohol isn’t really the problem; it’s the people who suffer from addiction issues that are the problem. Hiding alcohol and making it a taboo doesn’t stop people from drinking: Prohibition didn’t work; all it did was drive the behaviour underground. You deal with problem drinking the same way you deal with any addiction issue: You provide people the help they need to get off the stuff. You address the root causes of addiction, because without addressing those root causes an addict will not get better. Seeing somebody sampling a local wine at a local market isn’t going to sway an addict one way or another, because an addict doesn’t need swaying.
There was a very interesting article on the Huffington Post this week about the real causes of addiction which points out that addiction isn’t just a matter of chemical hooks in the brain. It’s also a matter of a lack of other ways to feel good about yourself. There’s a reason that addiction and poverty are so closely intertwined; any effective public-health approach to addiction and alcoholism is also one which gives addicts and alcoholics real alternatives and hope for the future.
It doesn’t matter if alcohol is more available, or less available, or not available at all: alcohol exists so there will always be alcoholics, even if they have to brew it themselves.
I’m not an expert on addiction, or mental health, or the problems of society. Perhaps I’m being unfair to the local health unit, who absolutely do provide services to assist addicts of all types. They’re doing the best they can in a political environment which doesn’t give them the resources they desperately need to make a dent in the very real problems of addiction in this province. So they write letters and make statements opposing the expansion of alcohol sales because, frankly, it’s not terribly expensive or time consuming to do so. But I do know that treating people like they can’t make responsible decisions isn’t a useful approach. It’s just… manipulation. You don’t make the decisions I agree with, so I’m going to make your decisions for you: that’s paternalism.
And it’s indicative of the back-asswards approach to alcohol — not to mention mental health — that exists in this province. Maybe, maybe, if public health officials spend less time treating the public like untrustworthy children and more on dealing with the real causes of addiction we might see some improvement on addiction issues.