Québec’s approach to alcohol regulation should be health-driven, not money-driven

It is troubling that the Quebec government has chosen to treat alcohol as if it were furniture or shoes. Alcohol is no ordinary product.

A recent example of its approach is found in its Regulatory and Administrative Streamlining Action Plan, which includes a series of measures on alcohol that illustrate the money-driven rather than the health-driven approach of our government.

The plan disregards all the recommendations made by the Ethics Council of Quebec’s alcoholic beverage industry regarding unacceptable commercial practices, such as cross-promotions, which allow grocers to get around the established minimum beer price without penalty. Not only does the plan do nothing to change the prevailing laxness with which existing laws are enforced, it even proposes to reduce penalties for lawbreakers.

In addition, the government is not requiring owners and employees of licensed establishments to take the Service in Action course, a major prevention measure that Éduc’alcool has been urging them to adopt for 12 years. There is clear evidence that making the course mandatory for all owners and employees of licensed establishments would significantly diminish impaired driving and violent behaviour.

Even more recently, the premiers of Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia last month announced their plan to implement measures to increase the flow of local wines among the three provinces. Quebec’s premier addressed the issue from an economic perspective alone, whereas his Ontario counterpart insisted on the importance of doing things in a “socially responsible way.” This speaks volumes as to their respective priorities.

This is disappointing, but it is not surprising. All the recent public debate on this issue has followed the same pattern, from the conclusions of Quebec’s auditor general regarding the purchase and sale of alcoholic beverages by the Société des alcools du Québec to the debate surrounding the adoption of Bill 88, An Act respecting development of the small-scale alcoholic beverage industry.

With all the fixation on privatizing the SAQ, the obsession with lowering alcohol prices and the fear that government revenues will drop, we have completely overlooked the fact that alcohol is a psychotropic drug.

When we hear that the government’s dilemma is weighing the SAQ’s need to offer consumers alcohol at the lowest possible prices against preserving the level of dividends paid to the state — as if it were simply a question of money, without anything to indicate the slightest concern about prevention and public health — the degree of insensitivity is cause for concern.

The SAQ’s job is not to provide Quebecers with alcohol at the lowest possible price. We wouldn’t need a state-owned corporation for that. The private sector could handle it, although the situation in Alberta has shown that the thirst for profits is far stronger than what people wrongly refer to as “healthy competition.” In fact, Albertans pay more for their alcohol than we do, and drinking-related problems have increased considerably in the province.

Nor is the SAQ meant to be a cash cow for the government. Its job is to strike a balance between satisfying consumers, paying dividends to the state and ensuring that prices are not so low as to exacerbate the problems of excessive drinking, intoxication and dependency. Studies show, for example, that retail alcohol monopolies are less likely than privately owned companies to sell to minors and intoxicated people.

The SAQ is a market-control instrument. Minimum beer prices are another such tool. Licenses and conditions to sell alcohol are yet another. Regulations on marketing, promotion and advertising also play a role.

All the scientific literature clearly demonstrates that appropriate regulations help reduce excessive consumption and the ills associated with it, while deregulation helps aggravate them.

That is why the sale of alcohol must be properly regulated. We don’t need less regulation; we need better regulation: regulation that removes unnecessary constraints, but never loses sight of the fact that prevention and public health must be at the very heart of all alcohol-related decisions.