Booze in grocery stores under consideration

Private outlet owners are vexed by the idea, saying it will hurt their businesses.

Paul Esposito

Paul Esposito

You may soon be able to purchase a bottle of wine or your favourite beer while grocery shopping, if provincial laws change.

The B.C. government’s liquor policy review has heard a “loud and clear” message that people want the convenience of buying alcoholic beverages in grocery stores, says the MLA in charge of the review.

However, owners of private liquor outlets say such a move is unnecessary, and unfair to those who invested in the business.

With a three-month consultation period ending Oct. 31, Richmond Steveston MLA John Yap said Tuesday that about 80 per cent of respondents (who commented via a government-created blog, through emails and Tweets) want the extra convenience that is routine in U.S. grocery stores.

Paul Esposito, Sr. owns a number of local businesses, including a soon-to-open private liquor store on Mt. Lehman at Highstreet mall. His company was the first in Abbotsford to introduce private stores, and he maintains consumers are already being well-served.

Allowing grocery stores to sell alcohol would “be a detriment to the private liquor store industry,” he said, and in the past three decades, many entrepreneurs, such as himself, have invested heavily.

Abbotsford-Mission MLA Simon Gibson praised Yap for his “exhaustive job,” but wants to ensure that “public safety is paramount. I think we have to move with caution.”

The former Abbotsford councillor and first-term BC Liberal MLA said, “I think it’s possible if liquor is more freely available, I fear consumption may increase among problem drinkers, but I don’t see my role as one to preach on this issue.”

However, according to Lesley Braithwaite, a supervisor at Abbotsford Addiction Centre, alcohol’s prevalence isn’t an issue.

“I don’t really think it’s the availability of liquor that causes people to abuse it,” she said. “Alcohol is a pretty big part of our society, and people aren’t alcoholic or drug abusers because it’s available.”

The B.C. government is looking into how other provinces handle this issue, and Yap is proposing a “store within a store” that would have separate space and staff for alcohol purchases. He said the number of outlets could be restricted to the current level, with some existing private or public liquor stores moved into grocery stores.

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario has announced a similar pilot project, with 10 “express” stores to offer limited selection inside or next to grocery stores. Nova Scotia also has government liquor stores located in grocery stores.

When the B.C. consultation began in September, Yap noted that beer, wine and spirits are already sold in rural grocery stores. He was critical of the U.S. model, saying it could lead to increased health and safety issues from increased consumption, as well as law enforcement problems.

B.C.’s medical health officers have called for a freeze or reduction to the number of private retailers, a $3 minimum price for bar drinks and higher prices for drinks with more alcohol content to deter over-consumption.

The Alliance of Beverage Licensees, representing pubs, bars and private liquor stores in B.C., isn’t happy with the idea. ABLE BC executive director Ian Baillie said the province already has more than 1,400 government and private liquor stores.

“The government also needs to consider what the impact of allowing large grocery chains to sell liquor will be on the thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of income that are provided by the current system,” Baillie said.

Yap will table recommendations Nov. 25. For more information see http://engage.gov.bc.ca/liquorpolicyreview/

– with files from Tom Fletcher and Jeff Nagel