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BC Wine & Liquor Law: Will 2013 Bring Reform?

A new year always brings the promise of change. In BC, perhaps 2013 will finally bring the advent of consumer-focussed reform of our archaic liquor and wine laws. It is now 92 years since BC repealed prohibition ... and we are still stuck with a "government control" mentality for both the regulation and distribution aspects of our wine industry. The current government has made some welcome minor changes in the past year (e.g. the introduction of corkage and the acceptance of interprovincial wine shipments). However, most of the major problems remain (see the FreetheWine and ModernizeWine sites) and, as such, BC remains out of step with the rest of the world. Our outdated approach creates problems for the entire province because it stifles the growth of food/wine culture and inhibits job creation in our increasingly important hospitality and tourism industries.

I am hopeful that liquor law reform will become an election issue this year ... because it is long past time for BC to enter the modern age of liquor regulation. The past year saw increased media attention to liquor law issues. Whether it was arcane festival beer garden restrictions, liquor in movie theatres, interprovincial wine shipments, the shutting down of charity wine auctions or, most recently, the restriction of all age events, BC citizens are getting increasingly annoyed by an outdated approach to liquor regulation which is firmly rooted about 80 years in the past (see Liquor Law Year in Review, Open The Tap, and Liquor Laws Should Treat Us Like Adults). Most North American jurisdictions have modernized their liquor regulatory systems to a much greater degree than BC. Close to home, both Alberta and Washington state now have systems which are essentially modern. Even Ontario is now discussing modernization in the wake of a realization that the LCBO is not the economic golden goose that it pretends to be (see this Globe and Mail commentary: Four Reasons Why Ontario Will Be Better Off Without the LCBO). 

In BC, we have an election in May and hopefully, any new government will adopt a more modern approach on the regulatory side. In addition, and with relevance to the distribution side of the equation, the government's fiscal situation continues to deteriorate.  The next government will need to look for ways to increase revenue. Currently, the BCLDB provides about $900 million of alcohol revenue annually to the government. However, it costs almost $300 million to run the system. Our wacky and insanely complicated wholesale pricing system means that there is no room for government to increase prices. If any future government wants to wring more revenue from alcohol sales it will have to redesign the system or cut costs or do both.

There are plenty of opportunities for sensible reform of the existing system and I remain cautiously optimistic that the election may become a catalyst for change. British Columbia's wine drinkers deserve a government that promotes food and wine culture and that encourages the growth of economic activity in the hospitality sector. I'll post again later this week with some suggestions for meaningful change.

If you are interested to hear more about this topic, be sure to attend the 2013 Wine and Liquor Law Conference in Vancouver on February 25th. There will be a conference topic dedicated to the discussion of positive reform measures.