Beer and wine in corner stores by Christmas?
That’s what the head of the Ontario Convenience Stores Association is hoping as the new Progressive Conservative government puts the finishing touches on its first budget due April 11 and appoints a special adviser for its review of alcohol sales.
“Premier (Doug) Ford has said it over and over. He’s going to put beer in small corner stores, more grocers and big-box stores and we are working towards that,” says association president Dave Bryans, who has long pushed for the move.
“If there’s ever a time for change, when it comes to the duopoly controlling alcohol and beer, now is the time,” adds the veteran lobbyist, referring to the LCBO and foreign-owned Beer Stores.
While he doesn’t expect more than a nod to the idea in Finance Minister Vic Fedeli’s fiscal blueprint, Bryans thinks the necessary conditions could be in place within six months.
“I hope we’re cutting the ribbon by fall,” Bryans tells the Star. “There’s still a lot of work to do, from distribution to working with the Craft Brewers’ Association and distillers and figuring how best to roll this out.”
Last week, Fedeli named former Alberta municipal affairs minister Ken Hughes as his adviser “on how the government can modernize Ontario’s beverage alcohol system to give consumers more choice and convenience while giving businesses more opportunities.”
“Mr. Hughes will also serve as a principal in negotiations with alcohol stakeholders and work closely with the policy teams to develop proposals and guide implementation,” Fedeli said in a statement.
“He will also lead ongoing discussions with key stakeholders, including beverage alcohol producers, public health and safety organizations, municipalities, consumer groups, retailers, and restaurants and bars.”
One major hurdle is a 10-year agreement signed between the province and the Beer Store in 2015 that expanded wine and beer sales into supermarkets. There would be hefty financial penalties for the government to break that accord.
The Ontario Safety League has already lined up against beer and wine in corner stores, a concept promised by then-Liberal leader David Peterson in the late 1980s that never came to fruition — although Kathleen Wynne’s most recent Liberal government did relax alcohol sales by allowing beer, wine and cider in hundreds of grocery stores.
“I’m 60 years old and no one’s ever turned to me and said, ‘It’s tough to get beer in this town,’” says Brian Patterson of the safety league, which has advocated for improved road safety since 1913.
“I don’t think there’s any need for single-serve purchases of alcohol at all.”
The Ford government’s Treasury Board president, Peter Bethlenfalvy, recently spoke to a dinner meeting of Bryans’ convenience store association, fondly recalling the days of his Quebec youth, when beer and wine could be purchased at corner stores known as depanneurs and assuring the crowd “our government is truly grateful for everything that you do and for the contribution you make.”
“We’ll have more to say,” he told the Star this week when asked about timing for expanding alcohol sales, noting the government is going through feedback received in public consultations on the issue that began before Christmas.
“We have a habit of keeping our promises, but we’re not saying anything on that. We’re going through the consultation results.”
The president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents thousands of LCBO staff, fears the provincial government is opening the door to a boozy “Wild West” by appointing Hughes, who comes from Alberta where sales and distribution have been privatized.
“It means giving business more opportunities to push alcohol sales at a great cost to the health and safety of our kids and communities,” Warren (Smokey) Thomas said in a statement Friday.
Opposition parties at Queen’s Park and the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco said they are concerned the Conservative government is getting too cosy with convenience stores — first by scrapping a regulation from the Wynne government that would have prohibited promotion of vaping in stores, frequented by teens prohibited from buying vape products until they turn 18.
New Democrat MPP France Gelinas said vaping is a “gateway” to smoking for teenagers, with vape companies and convenience stores trying to lock in a next generation of customers.
“The link is direct. You start vaping and you will get addicted to nicotine, you will make the switch to smoking. Nothing good comes of that,” she added.
The convenience store dinner meeting where Bethlenfalvy, the MPP for Pickering-Uxbridge, spoke was sponsored in part by Juul, a producer of vaping products that came to Canada last fall and whose parent company has been under the microscope of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“The data on the number of kids vaping in the United States has gone through the roof,” says Michael Perley of the anti-tobacco group, arguing the provincial government should be doing everything it can to discourage teens from taking up the habit.
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner agreed.
“We’ve got to separate out the harm reduction aspects for adult cigarette smokers versus the aggressive marketing to young people.”
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said Bethlenfalvy’s appearance at the convenience store dinner marks “a conflict between the public interest and a business interest.”
“We know that vaping is a gateway to smoking for youth. The government has loosened regulations very recently, and I think, as a minister, he should be very conscious of that. If he’s not, he needs to tune in.”
Bryan of the convenience stores association countered that vaping is a legal product and pointed out any stores caught selling to minors twice within five years lose their tobacco licence for six months and “might as well close their doors.”
He blames internet vendors for selling vape products to teens.
“Young people, they can go to any vaping website right now, it’ll ask if they’re 21 and they’ll ship it to your house. Nobody asks for proof of age at the door.”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1