Editorial: B.C.’s liquor playing field still not level

In the private sector, profitability is a prerequisite to survival

A lot of businesses were not on the list of celebrants drinking a toast April 1 to liquor law changes instituted in B.C. The province’s latest revisions are ostensibly aimed at simplifying regulations and levelling the playing field in the socially and financially complex liquor trade.

But the jury is still out on whether either has been achieved.

The BC Liberal government deserves credit for tackling the perennially controversial issue of liquor policy reform over the past three years. Some changes instituted April 1 should further modernize B.C.’s liquor laws. However, there’s little applause for one of the government’s most controversial changes: allowing grocery stores to sell alcohol. The Liberal government claims to support the idea of opening up the market to more free enterprise, but its implementation of what is standard operating procedure in the United States and many other countries is shaping up to be so restrictive as to render the prospect of clearing space on shelves or setting up a liquor store within a grocery store onerous at best and economically negative at worst.

It has also failed to ensure that the province’s liquor retailing playing field is really level. For example, B.C.’s original independent wine stores will continue to be prohibited from selling beer and spirits, restaurants must still buy exclusively from government liquor stores, and, under a deal negotiated with the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union, at least 185 of the government’s 196 liquor stores will remain open until March 2019, regardless of whether their operations are profitable under the BC Liquor Distribution Branch’s new system of separate wholesale and retail divisions. In the private sector, profitability is a prerequisite to long-term survival.

Meanwhile down at the bottom line, key questions remain. They include: will B.C. consumers get a better deal in alcohol pricing and selection? and will the new rules give businesses more freedom to compete in the province’s traditionally conservative and tightly controlled liquor sales market?

The answer to both at this point is no.