British Columbia

Wasted lives: The impact of policy on alcohol consumption and addiction

Alcohol sales bring in more money to the provincial government than natural gas royalties, forestry revenue or tobacco taxes but, some experts argue, the social and healthcare costs outweigh any profits.

'Because we like alcohol so much, we prefer to look the other way,' says alcohol researcher

Tim Stockwell says policies that increase the availability of alcohol, like allowing it to be sold in barbershops, also increase public harms. (CBC)

Alcohol sales bring in more money to the provincial government than natural gas royalties, forestry revenue or tobacco taxes, but some experts argue the social and healthcare costs outweigh the profits.

In the past, the previous B.C. Liberal provincial government made efforts to increase the availability of alcohol by introducing 70 recommendations to modernize the province's liquor laws.

Those efforts included allowing wine and beer sales in grocery stores, allowing businesses like barbershops and hair salons to apply for liquor licences and allowing round-the-clock room service for booze at hotels.

"There was definitely an emphasis on increasing the sales of alcohol," said Attorney General David Eby.

He said  while there are no plans to roll back initiatives that were successful or popular with the public, the current government is making harm reduction and addiction a priority.

"We are certainly not ignoring that as a government," Eby said.

Possible initiatives include more detox support for people battling addiction, adding labels to containers about the alcohol content, and educational initiatives at college campuses about the dangers of binge drinking.

"These are all pieces that our government is considering," he said. "We're six months in and I agree 100 per cent that we need to improve our public health response around alcohol."

Revenue versus cost

A recent B.C. budget noted that liquor revenue is projected to average more than $1 billion per year over the next three years, although there are no estimates of specifically how much alcohol addiction costs B.C.

Tim Stockwell, director of the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and a psychology professor at the University of Victoria, said the societal costs of alcohol addiction can be measured by lost productivity, increased healthcare, policing and criminal justice.

The 2002 figures for Canada estimate alcohol-related costs at more than $14 billion per year.

That figure is much higher today, Stockwell said.

"The government, I'm sure, is losing more money overall," he said. 

The solution, Stockwell argues, is not trying to collect more revenue through increased sales but rather limiting consumption of alcohol to reduce harm.

He'd like to see the province require retailers to standardize the prices of alcohol, so that all units-per-beverage are priced equally. Right now, some beverages that have a high alcohol content are cheaper than those with lower alcohol content.

Under minimum pricing, the price of hard liquor would reflect its percentage of alcohol.

"We do studies with people who have severe alcohol dependence," he said. "They actually reported a reduction in harms from alcohol after the minimum pricing."

Stockwell said public demand will influence policies but he hopes awareness about alcohol abuse and addiction will help diminish the cost to society.

"We are in a little bit of denial about this," he said. "By and large, because we like alcohol so much, we prefer to look the other way."

This story is part of CBC Radio One's series Wasted Lives: B.C.'s Biggest Addiction Crisis, produced by Jodie Martinson.

Tune into On The Coast, weekdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. PT, to hear the series. It runs Dec. 4 - 8, 2017.