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Concerns raised as Vancouver approves wine-in-grocery-store plan

Vancouver's city council has approved bylaw amendments to allow the sale of wine in certain grocery stores.

With Vancouver city council voting to allow the sale of wine in some grocery stores, concerns are being raised about how that might affect health, as well as other businesses.

Adam Sherk, a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, says there are a number of considerations when it comes to where alcohol is sold and how accessible it is.

“There are concerns from the public-health standpoint,” he explained.

“First and foremost, this doesn’t really help that many people. It’s not really increasing convenience, other than very modestly, for some of us who don’t have a problem with alcohol. But on the other hand, for those of us who might be dependent on alcohol or have experience with alcohol-use disorder, just to be subjected to wine and alcohol, to have that right in the aisle with you when you might be trying to stay away from it, that can be a challenge for some people.”

Sherk says the “increase in convenience” that some have expressed this move will lead to “just isn’t worth it.”

City councillors voted Thursday night to amend a bylaw to allow wine sales in stores.

According to the City of Vancouver, grocery stores bigger than 10,000 square feet, that have both a provincial wine store licence and a city business licence, “may sell wine on shelves provided they meet all provincial requirements.”

As part of the changes, all staff conducting the sale of wine must also be at least 19 years old and have a valid Serving it Right certificate. Stores must also have an “approved security plan.”

Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health, expresses many of the same concerns as Sherk.

She says over the last several years — particularly over the pandemic — different levels of government “have increased access to alcohol,” through measures like expanded drinking areas in parks. Daly describes those collective moves as “concerning,” given what she says has been an increase in consumption and binge drinking.

“We’ve also seen an increase in impacts on the health-care system. Over the last 10 years in Vancouver, there’s been a 40 per cent increase in hospitalizations for alcohol-related harms,” Daly explained.

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She fears increased accessibilities will further lead to increased consumption, and in turn, harms.

“These measures (from council) are actually very popular with the public because, the reality is, most people consume alcohol and it is part of our culture, and I don’t think they understand that alcohol is a significant cause of a number health issues. It is a class-one carcinogen, it increases your risk for heart disease, it’s associated with injuries, domestic violence, in addition to liver disease, addiction. We don’t think of it in the same way as some other, what we call, psychoactive substances,” Daly explained.

The doctor was at Thursday’s public hearing to provide her perspective. She says she has expressed her concerns to city council, in particular for three groups — children, people with an addiction to alcohol, and the Indigenous population — as they relate to putting alcohol on grocery store shelves.

Sherk says he’d like to see more labelling on alcohol to warn people about the harms associated with drinking.

Daly agrees but says further steps should also be taken.

Those include moves like setting a minimum price per drink, noting people are very “price sensitive,” as has been demonstrated by increasing taxes and prices of cigarettes.

“So there are things that can be done. The challenge is that, with some of the changes made by the provincial government some years ago, now Vancouver city council, the park board, they’re all going in the same direction: Increasing access. And the academic literature is very clear: anytime you increase access, you increase consumption, you increase harms,” Daly told CityNews.

“Alcohol is harmful to our children, to many members in our community, and we should all be drinking a little bit less to improve our health.”

She’s urging policy makers to speak to experts to better protect those who may be at higher risk when it comes to measures that increase accessibility to things like alcohol.

“I think that when the public understands that we’re trying to protect those who may be more vulnerable, they might be willing to forego a little bit of that convenience,” Daly added.

Private business concerns

Concerns around putting alcohol on grocery store shelves also go beyond public health.

John Clerides, who owns Marquis Wine Cellars in Vancouver, says it’s inevitable that measures like this will expand across B.C.

“Why do large companies, like Jimmy Pattison, Weston Family, get an augmentation to their business by selling wine, but we can’t sell food nor are we allowed to sell to restaurants — which the latter is just a strict monopoly of British Columbia liquor stores,” he told CityNews.

“Why can’t they share the love?”

Clerides says if we’re talking about convenience, governments should look at changing licencing rules to allow private stores to expand business, and support these small shops.

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