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Make it closing time for Ontario’s beer monopoly

The Beer Store is an institution built on a toxic mix of prohibition and cronyism

News broke this month that The Beer Store (TBS), Ontario’s monopoly beer-seller, is losing money and lots of it. According to its annual financial statement, TBS operated at a $50.7 million loss in 2020. While some of that can be chalked up to the pandemic decimating the demand for kegs, TBS has been in rough shape for some time. In fact, it hasn’t turned a profit since 2017, well before the pandemic upended the economy.

The Beer Store’s poor performance should lead Ontario consumers to ask the age-old question: why do we tolerate any entity having a virtual monopoly on the retail sale of beer? Even worse, why is its near-monopoly status protected by law?

For those who don’t know, which is approximately 68 per cent of Ontarians, TBS is a privately owned, government-protected monopoly first established on the heels of Prohibition. Its original purpose in 1927 was to create strict access points for beer retail, appeasing prohibitionists by supposedly protecting society from the evils of alcohol consumption.

Though the prohibition mentality is long gone its disappearance still hasn’t resulted in the liberalization of where Ontarians can buy beer. Right now, Ontarians only have limited options: The Beer Store, the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario), on-site sales at breweries, and a select number of grocery stores, 450 to be exact. Because of these limited choices, Ontario has the lowest alcohol retail density in all of Canada. Now would be a perfect time to liberalize the retail market for beer, specifically by granting convenience stores and any grocery store that wants to entry to the retail space.

The Beer Store naturally will fight tooth and nail to preserve its protected status but its arguments are not convincing.

Its first defence is legal — that it is protected under the Master Framework Agreement (MFA), signed under the Wynne government, which isn’t set to expire until 2025. But it is not unknown in Canadian history for legislatures to re-write agreements. Re-writing contracts does have its downsides but in this case revoking the agreement would serve competition and consumer choice, two very good causes.

The Beer Store also defends its protection under the banner of preserving jobs, keeping prices low, collecting revenues for the province, and protecting Ontarians from poor health outcomes. All these claims are bogus.

On job losses, TBS president Ted Moroz claimed in 2019 that alcohol liberalization would put the jobs of its 7,000 employees at risk. And well it might: competition usually doesn’t help protected incumbents. But researchfrom the Retail Council of Canada shows that expanding retail sales would actually create 9,500 new jobs in Ontario and boost GDP by $3.5 billion a year. Given Ontario’s financial position, any such boost is badly needed.

Originally published here.

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