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Wine Law Reform – Everywhere But BC?

Wine Law reform efforts appear to be making progress in many places … except BC:

WA State Privatization: Another liquor privatization initiative is on the ballot in Washington state for the November 8th election. Once again, Costco is leading the \”Yes\” side\’s effort to reform the state distribution system while liquor wholesalers are financing the \”No\” side in favour of the status quo. There has been plenty of analysis (see both \”pro\” and \”con opinions from the Seattle Times) and here are a couple of other articles if you are interested: Citizen\’s Guide to Initiative 1183 and Liquor and Long Term Initiatives Leading in New Poll. Leading WA wine writer, Paul Gregutt, weighs in here (My Vote on Initiative 1183) with his support for the YES side.

Hong Kong Creates Wine Boom: In 2008, the Hong Kong government repealed its high (80%) import taxes on wine. The repeal of the taxes created a huge boom in the wine business and in three short years, HK has now established itself as \”Asia\’s prime wine trading hub\” according to Decanter magazine. HK\’s wine imports will likely exceed $1 billion this year.

Wine Shipping Reform Continues at Federal Level: Dan Albas\’ private member\’s bill (C-311) continues to work its way through the House of Commons at the federal level. If passed, the Bill will produce the first reform in almost 90 years of Canada\’s arcane prohibitions on the interprovincial shipment of wine. The conclusion of second reading debate on this Bill is set for December 8th, after which the Bill will go to the Finance Committee.

Unfortunately, here in BC, nothing has happened on the wine law reform front despite pleas from many groups (here are just two new examples: restaurants and movie theatres). Last year\’s trade practices reforms (announced over 15 months ago) have still not been implemented and we are still stuck with one of the most outdated wine regulatory systems in the western world. If the initial comments on the Vancouver Sun\’s movie theatre article (Arcane Liquor Laws Kill Rio Theatre\’s Business) are anything to go by, then most British Columbians are just as frustrated with the failure to modernize as I am!

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Wine Shipping Law Reform Gathers Momentum

Bill C-311, a private members\’ bill introduced by Dan Albas MP (Okanagan-Coquihalla), will receive 2nd reading in the House of Commons today. If passed, this Bill will reform the 1928 federal law which prohibits the inter-provincial shipment of wine by creating a national personal use exemption for wine shipped direct to consumers between provinces and in limited amounts for personal consumption. The Bill has received a considerable amount of very positive coverage in the media and is attracting support from all political parties.

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Lessons from Prohibition

I recently watched Ken Burns’ excellent PBS documentary on Prohibition in the U.S., which included more than a few references to Canada and BC (which is where much of the American illegal booze flowed from). There are some obvious lessons from history, some of which are highly relevant for efforts to modernize BC’s current wine regulatory system which to a large extent is still reflective of post-prohibition thinking.

Lesson 1: Don’t Penalize Everyone if a Small Group Has a Problem. This was really the heart of the problem with prohibition. In order to solve the drinking problems of a minority of society, they punished everyone by banning alcohol entirely. This was obviously a terrible policy because the majority refused to abide by a law which they rightly viewed as unfair. Unfortunately, some of BC’s current liquor policies still have this attitude. One example: in order to supposedly discourage alcoholism and overconsumption, we tax everyone at excessive levels, including those who are drinking responsibly and moderately. As a result, big spenders ignore the law and buy their wine in Alberta.

Lesson 2: All Alcohol Consumption is NOT the Same. Much to the dismay of wineries and wine drinkers, the prohibition laws treated all alcohol exactly the same: as inherently evil. The laws completely ignored that wine is an agricultural product that has been part of civilized meals for thousands of years. They made no distinction between a jug of bargain basement vodka and a nice bottle of wine drunk with dinner. Most of BC’s regulatory system still inherits this thinking making almost no distinction between types of alcohol or manner of use. For example, a fine bottle of wine served with a meal in an upscale restaurant is basically subject to exactly the same tax and regulatory rules as a tequila shooter served in a college bar.

Lesson 3: If the Law is Not Being Respected Then Fix the Law Rather Than Stepping Up Enforcement. The ultimate failure of the prohibition advocates was that they steadfastly refused to compromise. Even in the face of massive disregard for the prohibition laws, they called for greater enforcement rather than compromising and creating more sensible policy that had a greater chance of being respected. We still have this problem. For example, some of Canada’s liquor boards are still opposed to the modernization of Canada’s foolish and unenforceable interprovincial wine shipping restrictions – they actually threatened BC wineries with criminal sanctions rather than working to create a more sensible law.

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Reform Process for Wine Shipping Law Begins

Here is a link to Bill C-311, the Bill that, if passed, will amend the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act so as to create a national personal use exemption which would permit the shipment of wine between provinces direct to consumers. The amendment to IILA would add an additional exemption in s.3(2) of the Act so that the prohibition on inter-provincial shipment would not apply in the following circumstances:

the importation of wine from a province by an individual, if the individual brings the wine or causes it to be brought into another province, in quantities and as permitted by the laws of the latter province, for his or her personal consumption, and not for resale or other commercial use.

Here’s a short analysis of the effect of Bill C-311, if it is passed. What does Bill C-311 do?

  • Creates an exemption from the interprovincial ban on shipping alcohol across provincial borders in limited circumstances, as described below.
  • The exemption would apply to wine only, both domestic and imported (this is necessary in order to comply with Canada’s trade agreement obligations and desirable for consumers) and only in amounts for personal consumption.
  • The exemption would apply to BOTH wine that is personally transported across a provincial border with an individual AND wine that is shipped at the request of an individual across a provincial border.
  • The destination province is given the ability to further define reasonable amounts for personal consumption and potentially set other requirements so long as they do so through law.

It’s my strong belief that this is a reasonable compromise measure that should be supported by all aspects of the wine industry (see Dan Albas\’ sensible explanation here). Some have called for the complete abolition of the IILA and, personally, I would not be sad to see it gone but such a step would create dramatic changes that most provinces would oppose. The approach taken by this Bill is much less disruptive but it is significant enough that it will provide immediate benefit for Canadian wineries and consumers in a small segment of the retail wine market, specifically, those consumers who are looking for hard to find products that are unavailable locally.

The benefits of this Bill, if it is passed, are:

  • Consumers will be able to order wine from wineries in other provinces and have it direct shipped so long as the amounts are for personal consumption.
  • Consumers will be able to order hard to find wines from retailers (including liquor boards) in other provinces so long as the amounts are for personal consumption.
  • Consumers will be able to return from vacations in other provinces with wine without breaking the law.

The above changes are sensible because they re-establish Canada as a free trade zone for wine (which is supposed to be guaranteed by the Constitution anyway) and they provide consumers with a greater selection of wines to purchase within the country. This Bill will not appreciably affect the revenue that the provinces generate from liquor sales. The vast majority (well over 90%) of retail wine is consumed within a few hours of purchase. This Bill will not affect those sales at all because those consumers will not wait for the delivery of their wine or pay for shipping (usually at least $2-3 a bottle). In the U.S., which has had a similar system for many years, the experience has been that interstate (or interprovincial) shipment will only comprise about 1% of the total retail wine market. This Bill deserves our support and I encourage readers to go to where they can ask their MP to vote for it and ask their MLA/MPP to also provide support.

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Bill to Reform Wine Shipping Law Introduced Today

Dan Albas, MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla, will introduce a private member\’s bill today which will, if passed, have the effect of creating a national personal use exemption so that wine can be shipped between provinces. More coverage and analysis will follow as soon as the Bill is introduced.