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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Down with the LCBO

When I was a university student in Ontario in the 1970s the only place to legally buy liquor was downtown at a single run-down LCBO store. Buying liquor there was what I imagine shopping at the GUM department store must have been like in the Soviet Union - there were no products on display, no pictures or advertisements, just row after row of lists of various types of booze available in various bottle sizes. You had to find the stuff you wanted on the list and use a little stubby pencil to fill out an official purchase order with your name, address and the serial number and quantity of hooch you wanted. You then guiltily handed the PO to a crusty guy behind a wicket who perused your order, looked you up and down and then, sighing, went into a back room and eventually brought out your purchase in a brown paper bag. When the whole sordid transaction was complete, you snuck out of the store feeling like you'd just been caught by your dad reading dirty magazines.

Thankfully that humiliating experience is now history in Ontario, but the provincial government still maintains a stranglehold on the sale of most types of wine and liquor, and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario stubbornly defends its monopoly while touting its mandate to be a "socially responsible, performance-driven and profitable retailer, engaging our customers in a discovery of the world of beverage alcohol through enthusiastic, courteous and knowledgeable service." This may be a laudable goal, but is it really the government's role to control the retail sale of alcohol rather than just regulate it?

The LCBO's conversion to "enthusiastic, courteous and knowledgeable service" while "engaging customers in a discovery of the world of beverage alcohol" may be sincere, but it's damned inconvenient. In the village where I live (population 3000) there is a tiny LCBO outlet that has only enough shelf space to carry the community's lowest common denominator of product, which means it's well stocked with Mike's Hard Lemonade and Canadian Club whiskey. To satisfy the more, shall we say, discriminating palate, you have to drive for 45 minutes to the city of Belleville (population 48 000) which is served by exactly ONE LCBO store.

Compare this to the experience in most US cities. For example, the upstate New York city of Watertown (population 27 000) near the Canadian border has seven conveniently located liquor stores and every grocery store has a huge selection of beer and wine, including fantastic local microbrews and an impressive selection of imported and domestic wine. The first time I wandered into the Hannaford's grocery store there and beheld the beer & wine section I felt like Howard Carter opening the tomb of Tutankhamun - I saw "wonderful things".

Once every decade or so someone runs in a provincial election in Ontario promising to release the LCBO's death grip and allow the sale of wine and beer in convenience and grocery stores, but inevitably the powerful LCBO employees' union mounts a ferocious campaign which portrays it as the only thing standing between the citizens and the complete moral collapse of society. Without the LCBO standing guard, there will be thousands of drunken infants littering the gutters of Ontario and the whole province will turn into a hellhole like Watertown. Inevitably the party foolhardy enough to propose the end of the monopoly backs off.

Is it impossible to end a state monopoly on alcohol sales? In Ontario, that seems to be the case. However, voters in Washington State have recently shown that it can be done:
Thanks to a $22.7 million campaign headed up by Costco, grocery stores and other large retail establishments will soon be allowed to sell booze. What's particularly neat about the ballot measure was that it abolished not only the state's monopoly on retail, but on distribution as well. Liquor sellers will now be allowed to buy directly from distillers and warehouse their own inventory rather than going through the state.
The ballot intitiative was approved by 60% of the votes cast, in spite of the dire predictions of the No campaign:
Early on, the No campaign focused on the safety implications of the measure and was winning in phone surveys. Its lead diminished as the campaign turned to speculation about how many gas stations and minimarts might sell liquor, and to Costco.
In a statement, the opposition coalition said it remains concerned about the public-safety consequences and hopes the measure's supporters will make good on promises of extra revenue for law enforcement.
The fact that 900 state liquor store employees would lose their jobs didn't make much difference. In fact, the change is expected to generate more jobs and increase revenue to the State of Washington:
The state budgeting office figures the number of outlets selling liquor will jump from 328 to 1,428. It also expects the change to generate an average of $80 million more in annual revenue for the state and local governments over the next six years.
I would like to think that such a thing is possible in Ontario, but with the voters having recently chosen another four years of Nanny McGuinty, that has about as much chance as a wine cooler in hell.


Anonymous said...

Also,note that there are no stats to show that alcoholism, underage drinking, DUI's etc. rates are better in Ontario than anywhere else because of this "socially responsible" culture.

It is nonsense.

OddSox said...

If it makes you feel any better - it used to be worse! See

Martin said...

I believe you exagerate on the purchasing methods of years ago; after 1965, I never gave any address, simply signed at the bottom. I remember it as quick and fairly efficient system. I spent much less time lining up, then I do today, with debit card purchasing, much to be said for cash and carry.
I do not support a government monopoly, but there are a few advantages, depending on your location. In a small town the LCBO has more variety then a private system would likely provide, plus anything can be ordered from the catalogue. My main complaints with the LCBO is their marketing strategy, lavish stores, and too few of them, huge advertising budget, not enough purchasing advantage passed to consumer, and the markup policy.

I support privatization,as my local grocery store is an LCBO agency. It has a limited stock of beer, wine and liquor, excellent hours, and one stop shopping. I avoid the LCBO outlets whenever possible.