Ontario Votes: Why aren't alcohol sales on tap in this campaign?

Many consumers and industry types say they want changes to how alcohol is sold in Ontario, so why are party leaders keeping a cork on the debate so far in this election?

Ontario PCs have so far not repeated plans to end LCBO, Beer Store 'monopoly'

CBC's Genevieve Tomney looks at 2 issues the main party leaders appear unwilling to discuss. 2:37

Ontario beer buyers looking to stock up on suds ahead of this Victoria Day long weekend have really only two choices: the Beer Store or the LCBO.

Judging by the current Ontario election campaign, the same will hold true next year too, no matter who wins June 12's election.

The Beer Store is a retail chain operated by three large international breweries, Anheuser-Busch Inbev, Molson Coors and Sapporo, and only sells beer. The government-operated LCBO is a full-service liquor store that sells beer, wine and spirits.

Last month, the Liberals made a small move toward giving drinkers more options, announcing in April a one-year pilot project to allow LCBO kiosks to operate inside 10 large grocery stores across the province.

"Ontario consumers have long asked for more convenient options, and we're listening," said Finance Minister Charles Sousa at the time.

But are they really listening? The move falls well short of calls from Ontario convenience stores and grocery store chains, who've long sought the ability to sell beer and wine.

Raging against the Beer Store 'monopoly'

CBC Radio's The Current took a look at the issue on Friday. You can listen to the show here.

Chris Wilcox is the general manger of the Quickie convenience store chain, which operates 39 stores in Ontario and 11 in Quebec. Wilcox, who is also president of the Ontario Convenience Stores Association, calls the Beer Store a "monopoly" that should be dissolved.

"The business model is not only bent, it's completely broken," he told The Current guest host Tom Harrington. "I think it's high time that Ontarians have more choice, more convenience in their purchase of beer and wine. In Quebec we compete with other channels. It's widely known that you can drive from Ottawa, a five-minute drive over the bridge and into Quebec, and buy beer more less expensively than you can in Ontario."

Should beer and wine sales be opened up in Ontario? So far party leaders appear reluctant to weigh in on the issue. (Canadian Press)

The Current also spoke to Jason Fisher, owner of the Indie Ale House. His company brews and sells beer from its 100-seat brew pub in Toronto's west end.

Fisher said the Beer Store charges listing fees to stock beer from smaller companies, a model he says doesn't make sense for his business.

"They can make these rules up," said Fisher. "There's no law that regulates what they can do. They're self-regulated, which is nonsense. They charge these fees but they pay them to themselves. The craziest part is there's no alternative."

The Beer Store has pushed back calls for retail expansion of beer sales, and even created this ad, which suggests that alcohol sales in convenience stores will result in more sales to minors.

Spokesman Jeff Newton insists the Beer Store is not a monopoly because it doesn’t set the sale price and stocks beers not brewed by the big three breweries that own the retail operation.

"Every brewer who wants in the Beer Store can put their products in our stores," Newton told the The Current. "They're allowed to set their own price. Twenty per cent of brands they carry are Ontario craft beers, and they pay a nominal listing fee."

The Beer Store is also often criticized for its minimal in-store experience, which leaves little room for browsing. Other critics say the Beer Store pushes brands from the big three breweries that own it, while pushing craft brews to the margins.

The Ontario Wine Council also weighed in this week, calling for more consumer choice and launching a website to encourage people to contact Ontario candidates about the issue.

So while the debate rages among those in the industry, what are Ontario's political parties saying?

PC Leader Tim Hudak a year and a half ago called for an end to the LCBO and Beer Store "monopolies," telling reporters he would allow beer, wine and spirits to be sold at corner stores.

But the Tories have made no mention of opening up alcohol sales since this election campaign kicked off, and Hudak rebuffed questions on the issue at his platform kick-off this week.

The government-owned and operated LCBO generates $1.7 billion in annual revenue for the province. (John Rieti/CBC)

The Liberals and NDP have also stayed silent about any plans they may have to change how alcohol is sold in Ontario. Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath were both asked by the Toronto Star where they stood in December, both said they weren't planning any changes.

One reason may be that selling booze has proven profitable for the province. The LCBO pours about $1.7 billion into provincial coffers each year. That's a lot of revenue for a province struggling to pay down a $12.5 billion deficit.

Alcohol question put to Vote Compass users

Users of Vote Compass, CBC's online voter engagement tool, show a desire to see some expansion of alcohol sales in Ontario.

Asked which retail stories should be permitted to sell alcohol, 58 per cent of respondents support alcohol sales in grocery stores, while 45 per cent support alcohol sales in convenience stores. About 40 per cent of respondents said they did not think alcohol should be sold in either type of location.

The findings are based on 5,066 respondents to Vote Compass between May 12 and May 14, 2014. Though Vote Compass is not a poll, respondent data are weighted using the latest population estimates from Statistics Canada to approximate a representative sample of the Ontario population.

Developed by a team of political scientists from Vox Pop Labs, Vote Compass is an educational tool offered exclusively in Canada by CBC News.

Charts: Which of the following should be permitted to sell alcohol in Ontario?

Mobile users, view the charts here


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