Nova Scotia should put in tougher rules on alcohol sale before it rolls out more agency stores selling liquor in rural communities, a health expert says.

The Liberals said last month that seven more communities will get agency stores. They sell alcohol on behalf of the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation.

But Julie McEachern, a health policy advocate, says the expansion should be paused until a study is done on their impact.

The first eight agency stores opened in 2001 and there are 51 today. 

'We don't receive a whole lot of complaints.'- NSLC spokesman Mike Maloney

McEachern says rural communities that have agency stores "are vulnerable to the health and social risks associated with increased access to alcohol."

"The more we see alcohol as a normal commodity, the more likely we are to be lax around how much we think we should be drinking or how much is OK to drink or how often," she said.

"Too many people are already drinking too much alcohol too often so normalizing our perceptions of alcohol is going in the wrong direction. Alcohol is a drug, so it is not a normal commodity and it should not be perceived as such."

A 2011 report prepared by Nova Scotia's Department of Health and Wellness notes that the average age for a first drink in this province is 13. The Alcohol Indicators report also says heavy-drinking rates in the province are too high.

The agency stores are governed by Agency Store Agreements, which spell out how the stores are to be set up, managed and stocked.

Only one complaint in 13 years

Mike Maloney, spokesman for the NSLC, said the rules work.

"Regulation is one thing but we have our own policies and standards in place already," he said.

"If they don't [follow the rules] they run the risk of losing their ability to sell and we'll revoke that licence."

He said there’s only been one violation in 13 years. It resulted in a one-week licence suspension.

McEachern toured 22 agency stores and took photos of what she sees as lax rules about displaying alcohol near non-alcohol; for example, coolers sitting in the same fridge as pop.

This photo seems to show a violation of agency store rules.

This photo seems to show a violation of agency store rules. Alcohol isn't supposed to be this close to pop. (Courtesy Julie McEachern)

Maloney admits one image shows a violation: beer and coolers are located a shelf above pop cans in one fridge.

"It looked like that was in fact not within our standards, but it seems to happen very rarely according to our own records and we don't receive a whole lot of complaints,” he said. “I don't think we've received any in the last several years."

Liquor must be stored apart from other goods in the agency stores.