Prince Edward Island made an international stir on Thursday by closing its liquor and cannabis stores on the grounds they were not providing essential services and therefore should be shuttered in the face of the pandemic. That may well have been the right decision. But it likely caused millions of people to reflect that, while binge-viewing their favourite streaming service or relaxing after a day of Monopoly with the kids, it would be more than nice to relax with a glass of their favourite beverage or ingestive. No one favours substance abuse. But responsible enjoyment of their relaxant of choice is something adults should be free to choose to do.

Except that in many places in Canada, governments have not made that choice very easy. Ontario historically has been such a place. But in the 2018 provincial election now-Premier Doug Ford made a commitment to expand retail access and consumer choice for the 11.6 million Ontarians who consume alcohol. So far, Ford’s main push has been to expand retail sales by allowing alcohol to be sold at convenience stores. When his government announced this change in May 2019, most long-suffering Ontario alcohol consumers rejoiced. Unfortunately, prospects for their liberation soon dimmed because of a legal battle with The Beer Store. For obvious reasons, the whole question of market structures for alcohol sales is on the far back burner. But eventually this political struggle will resume. Here’s how spirits could help break the logjam.

As a foreign-owned corporate entity with a near-monopoly on the sale of beer, The Beer Store is a powerful force in the province. After Ford’s announcement, it threatened the government with a $1-billion lawsuit for breach of contract if the “Master Framework Agreement” was terminated. That agreement prohibits Ontario from allowing increased beer retail beyond 450 approved grocery stores until after 2025.

Although pro-consumer organizations have urged the government to call The Beer Store’s bluff, arguing that its legal position is weaker than its PR suggests, the premier seems unwilling to proceed without first negotiating with The Beer Store. That’s a decidedly un-populist win for corporatism at the expense of Ontario consumers.

Yet the Ford government isn’t entirely handcuffed by the agreement Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals signed onto in 2015. If Ford wants to show his commitment to increasing consumer access in Ontario, but without ripping up the Master Framework Agreement, he should simply expand product variety at the 450 approved grocery stores provincewide. With the stroke of a pen, the province could allow approved grocery stores to sell spirits alongside the beer and wine they already sell. Nothing in the agreement prohibits this, and it would make an immediate impact for Ontario consumers.

Such a move would clearly demonstrate the Ford government’s commitment to greater choice for alcohol consumers and would let The Beer Store know the province is serious about liberalizing markets for alcohol.

Allowing spirits to be sold in grocery stores would also create a fairer marketplace for consumers, retailers and producers. As it currently stands, spirits can’t be sold in grocery stores. This obviously disadvantages both the consumers who prefer spirits, and the stores that would willingly sell these products. It also seriously disadvantages local Ontario distillers, as their products are prohibited from being sold alongside beer and wine. Frankly, it is silly that foreign-made wine and beer can be sold at grocery stores, but Ontario-made spirits, made with Ontario grains, can’t be.

Beyond expanding consumer choice and market equity, giving spirits the green light would help prepare the province for a full-scale rollout once convenience stores are brought into the retail market. Letting grocery stores sell spirits would pave the way for convenience stores to do the same, and that would be a significant boon to consumers who at the moment can only choose between a government monopoly or a government-protected corporate one.

For the moment, Doug Ford’s hands may be tied by past agreements and negotiations with The Beer Store. Luckily for lovers of spirits, there is an easy policy change that could expand access while avoiding a costly legal battle. For the sake of everyone who enjoys a cold drink in Ontario, let’s hope Ford follows through and values consumers over corporatism.

Originally published here.

The Consumer Choice Center is the consumer advocacy group supporting lifestyle freedom, innovation, privacy, science, and consumer choice. The main policy areas we focus on are digital, mobility, lifestyle & consumer goods, and health & science.

The CCC represents consumers in over 100 countries across the globe. We closely monitor regulatory trends in Ottawa, Washington, Brussels, Geneva and other hotspots of regulation and inform and activate consumers to fight for #ConsumerChoice. Learn more at consumerchoicecenter.org



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