BC Reforms Some Liquor and Wine Laws

The BC Government has announced changes to some of BC's liquor laws. The statutory amendments are fairly extensive. The LCLB has a summary in PDF form here. Many of the amendments are housekeeping matters to reflect the reality of various changes to the liquor and wine business that had been informally adopted previously. However, there are also some relatively substantial changes which are for, the most part, good news. For example:

  • Reform of Tied-House Laws. The current Liquor Control and Licensing Act ("LCLA") contains a "blanket prohibition" in section 18(1) of "tied-houses". The original intention of these provisions was to prevent vertical control of the liquor market (i.e. to stop manufacturers from owning pubs/restaurants/retailers so that they could favour their own products). The reality of our modern liquor industry is that such control is not a major concern. The tied-house laws ended up causing significant grief for some businesses. For example, a winery could not sell its wine at a hotel/restaurant that was owned by the same family because of the "tied-house" restrictions. The amendments remove the blanket prohibition and permit regulations to be issued which will govern any restrictions on "tied-houses". As such, we will have to wait to see the regulations to see exactly how this issue is being fixed ... but the statutory amendments are a step in the right direction.
  • Inducements and Co-op Advertising. Similarly, the current LCLA contains prohibitions that prevent licensees from receiving "money, gifts, reward or remuneration" for the promotion or sale of liquor. These blanket prohibitions made it difficult to permit retailers and agents/manufacturers from working together to promote the sale of a product. These practices are commonplace in other industries such as the supermarket and grocery business.  The amendments eliminate the blanket prohibitions and make them subject to regulation. Once again, we will have to wait to see the regulations. However, it appears that the intention is to permit some form of co-op advertising.
  • Licensee Resale. The amendments change the law so that "a prescribed class or category" of licensee can sell to other licensees. The explanatory PDF indicates that this is to enable rural agency stores to sell to other licensees (e.g. pubs/restaurants) in remote areas.
  • Inter-provincial Border Issues. The PDF states that there will be a new "process for bringing in small amounts of alcohol into BC from elsewhere in Canada for personal use". At the present time, it is generally illegal and/or so expensive to do this that consumers ignore the reporting requirements (if they are even aware of them). I have long advocated that BC take the lead on this issue and establish a workable process for inter-provincial shipping of wine. However, I understand from the LCLB that this initiative is more limited and the new process will only apply to "small amounts" of wine brought back personally with a traveller into BC from another province - so it will not address the inter-provincial shipping issue. Rather, it will permit BC residents to bring wine back with them from other provinces if they have been on a trip without breaking the law. It appears that the intent is to exempt such wine from provincial markups. While this is a step in the right direction, it will not solve the problem for BC wineries' shipping to other provinces.
  • Independent Wine Stores. The "old-style" private wine store license (e.g. Liberty, Marquis, Everything Wine etc ...) was based on an agency agreement with the Crown. This category of store is being removed from the legislation ... presumably to be moved into a category of license under the regulations (where other retailers such as LRS stores are located).
  • Special Occasion Licenses. There are a number of changes which clarify the process and regulation of special occasion licenses. The new statutory provisions permit "prescribed" classes or categories of licensees to also issue special occasion licenses. It is not clear what the extent of this is.

While we will have to see what the new regulations contain, these reforms generally appear to be good ones and a welcome step in the right direction for wine law reform.

UPDATE (June 3, 2010): the legislative bill which makes the above changes has now been passed by the BC Legislature and will receive Royal Assent on June 3, 2010. However, many of the more significant changes do not take effect immediately. Rather, they will be introduced by regulation.

Please contact me directly if you have any questions or comments on the above.

U.S. Wholesalers Move to Preserve 3 Tier System

In U.S. news, it appears that wine and spirits wholesalers are attempting to mitigate the impact of recent court decisions permitting direct shipping of wine to consumers by strengthening the power of the states to regulate alcohol (including wine). A bill has been introduced in the U.S. Congress which is designed to make it difficult to challenge the power of the states in respect of their use of legal barriers which support the three tier distribution system. The wine and spirits wholesalers have historically supported the three tier distribution system which has until recently required that all alcohol going into a state be distributed by a wholesaler for that state. Recent court decisions (the most prominent of which is Granholm v. Heald) have permitted wineries to direct ship to consumers in other states without going through the three tier system. The bill changes the evidentiary standards for such challenges, making it more difficult for them to succeed. Wine Spectator has reported on this and is properly concerned that this could be an end to direct shipping.

Time for Accountability for the BC Liquor System

My apologies for the following rant which is really a summary of recent frustrations ...

News from the BC Government, LCLB and LDB is showing that the lack of accountability and transparency in our retail wine distribution system is reaching unprecedented levels. Generally, it is assumed by the law that when government regulates in an area it is doing so in the public interest. However, the BC government's wine and liquor distribution system throws some serious doubt on this assumption. In fact, some recent actions of the BC government seem to show that there is inadequate consideration of the public interest in this area. Consider the following recent issues.

Minimum Shelf Prices. Most people aren't aware that the government imposes minimum prices for beer, wine and spirits in BC. The LDB recently increased the minimum shelf price for spirits in BC from $23 to $23.75. A couple of recent articles have showed how off base this policy is. Because the LDB uses a "fixed markup formula" for all of its products, any increase in the shelf price will simply result in the supplier increasing the wholesale price charged to the LDB. So all that happens is that the consumer overpays, the government loses out on tax revenue and the supplier gets a windfall profit. Zero benefit to consumers ... nice profit for suppliers, minor benefit to the government/taxpayers (but with lost revenue).

Privatization Derailed. The recent deal between the BC government and the BCGEU has the government promising to keep operating nearly all government liquor stores as well as the wholesale distribution system. This comes at a cost to taxpayers of about $300 million per year. The government could have privatized some or all of the retail stores, saving itself tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in operating costs while maintaining all of its existing liquor tax revenue (which is applied at the wholesale level ... so it doesn't matter whether the product gets sold in a government store, private store or bar/restaurant). In addition, the government could have sold the government stores to the private sector, likely netting itself a one-time windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when those funds are badly needed. Instead, the government decides to keep the status quo. Zero benefit to consumers & taxpayers, no help for smaller BC wineries trying to get better distribution ... but a nice benefit to the BCGEU and some of the other players who like the system the way it is.

For an interesting insight into the inner workings of the liquor system and how your taxpayer dollars are being spent, you might wish to read either this summary or the full labour arbritration decision both of which relate to a 2005 LDB awards dinner where one employee got severely intoxicated, fell over as he was receiving his award and apparently heckled the Premier, the Minister and the Lieutenant-Governor (who were all present) using some rather inadvisable and colourful language. While this is obviously a case of "one bad apple", it casts some light on the use of your taxpayer dollars. The LDB fired the employee afterwards ... apparently at least partly because he had caused embarassment to the LDB at a time when they were trying to avoid privatization. The LDB lost an appeal by the union of the dismissal ... and the "over-refreshed" employee was reinstated.

Increased Distance Separation for Private Liquor Stores. Most people also aren't aware that the government has a legal prohibition which prevents a new private liquor store from opening if there is another private store close by. It's almost impossible to obtain a retail liquor license in BC ... so there's not a great deal of competition anyway. But, the government has just increased the "distance separation" so that the law prohibits any new stores within 1 km of an existing store. So for example, if you are lucky enough to have an existing private liquor store license, you are effectively shielded from any new competitors within a 2 km radius. No allowance is made for population density so if your license happens to be in a densely populated area - lucky you, you get an exclusive right to that area. As readers will know, I am an advocate of more privatization in the wine business and many existing operators do an excellent job ... but this government policy is misguided. Since when is it a legitimate function of government to prevent competition in any retail sector? Just imagine if this logic was extended to other businesses - e.g. we'll make it illegal for anyone to open another coffee shop within 1 km of yours regardless of how many people live nearby. Nice perk if you could get it! Zero benefit to consumers & taxpayers ... preferential treatment for existing store owners who are in densely populated areas.

Implementation of the HST Means Increases in Liquor Board Markup. Theoretically, the introduction of the HST at a combined rate of 12% would have meant a small reduction on the taxes on wine (which are currently 10% PST + 5% GST = 15% total). However, the government has decided that this can't be allowed so they have directed the LDB to INCREASE the already outrageous liquor board markups. So, for example, the markup on wine, which is currently 117% will go up to an even more absurd level. Once you add the liquor board markup, the sales taxes and various liquor board fees, you have combined tax and markup rates which approach 150%! And this is on wine, a product which is actually good for you when consumed as intended, in moderate amounts. By contrast, if I chug soda pop which is not good for me in any amount, I am currently not taxed by the BC government at all and will only be taxed at 12% after the HST is added. For complicated reasons (which you can read about here if you are interested), there may actually be a small benefit to BC wineries but there will be zero benefit to consumers and taxpayers.

The sum of all of this is obvious ... in my view, the government is not paying sufficient attention to the public interest on important policy decisions which affect the wine industry and wine consumers. Most monopolies in Canada have historically had a corresponding regulator whose purpose it is to protect the public interest. However, Canada's liquor monopolies have never had this oversight ... it's time for consumers and taxpayers to demand change.


News Stories Highlight LDB Pricing and the Power of Lobbying

Two recent news stories highlight items that I have recently written about.

The first is a story by Vancouver lawyer, Tony Wilson: "Why BC's Liquor Board Gets Away With Complacency". This article explains why "minimum pricing" for liquor (referred to misleadingly as "social reference pricing" in BC) is a bad idea. It simply results in lost revenue for the government, a windfall for suppliers and price gouging for consumers. The Vancouver Province has also now picked up this story: LDB Overpays Suppliers to Keep Liquor Prices High

The second is a story in Wine Spectator: "In New York, Battle Over Wine in Groceries, Money Talks". This story details the efforts of New York's Governor to permit wine sales in grocery stores. Apparently, his plans were derailed by powerful lobbying from interest groups who liked the system (and the profits) just the way it is. Sound familiar?

BCGEU Deal Curbs Privatization Progress

A tentative deal between the BC Government and the BCGEU will likely put an end to any progress on the privatization of BC's liquor stores. The deal is for 2 years, expiring March 31, 2012. The agreement commits the government to keeping at least 185 of its existing 197 LDB stores open and for it to continue running its distribution system. A reduction of the 185 number is only possible if existing stores are consolidated into "signature stores" on a 2 for 1 basis.

The nature of the agreement means that it will be difficult for the government to reduce the cost of running the LDB (currently about $300 million per year). Taxpayers will now continue to be burdened with the costs and risks of running a retail liquor operation, thus ensuring that retail prices remain excessively high and selection is limited. The government will not be able to raise badly needed cash by selling off existing stores (as was done when Alberta privatized its system). When government does not have sufficient funds to properly fund health care and education, this is perplexing ... why would we continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually to employ government workers as liquor store cashiers when we can't afford a sufficient number of teachers or nurses?

The winners in this are the BCGEU, some existing private retail stores who are shielded from competition by the current system, and the large commercial wineries that control the low end of the market (the "Cellared in Canada" product). Consumers and taxpayers will lose out as the government continues to foster a monopoly system which provides poor selection and which ensures some of the highest retail wine prices in the world. Smaller BC wineries will also lose out as they will continue to be denied access to a fair and accessible retail distribution system.

Regrettably, the Government has now missed an opportunity to transform BC's dysfunctional wine retail system into a model for the rest of Canada. Instead, we will be stuck with the status quo for at least another 2 years. That will make it difficult to solve the myriad of serious problems facing the industry. How will we fix the longstanding trade agreement problems with the distribution system which the EU and US are fuming about? How will we fix the inter-provincial shipping problems? Will the LDB finally create a level playing field and stop acting as wholesaler to both its own retail stores and the private stores with which it is in direct competition? How will the LDB meet its revenue target for next year (which is $100 million higher than this year's target) without increasing prices?

 

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