Ethicist, recovering alcoholic blast Liquor & Lotteries' sale of cheap booze at downtown store

The sale of low-priced high-volume alcohol at a downtown Winnipeg Liquor Mart is being criticized by an ethicist and recovering alcoholic.

Recovering alcoholic calls sale of low-priced sherry 'mind-boggling' and 'irresponsible'

Customers wait for the Ellice Liquor Mart to open. Many are there for a bottle of London Westminster Canadian Apera, a fortified wine known as sherry, which has 20 per cent alcohol. (Warren Kay/CBC)

It's a chilly morning, but customers start to line up outside the doors of the Liquor Mart on Ellice Avenue about 15 minutes before it opens.

Once the open sign is flicked on and the doors are unlocked, about a dozen people race in.

They've come to buy a bottle of London Westminster Canadian Apera — better known as sherry. The 750ml bottle of fortified wine retails for $9.37, has 20 per cent alcohol, and is kept just steps away from the till at the Liquor Mart.

It's the store's best seller year after year, according to internal sales records obtained by CBC News.

The Liquor Mart on Ellice sold 103,553 bottles of London Westminster Canadian Apera from 2015-17. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The amount of sherry sold at the store is staggering — 103,553 bottles were sold from 2015-17, documents obtained through a freedom of information request reveal. Only 378 bottles were sold in the same period at the St. Vital Square Liquor Mart.

The bottles frequently litter streets close to the Liquor Mart and it's common to see people drinking it in parking lots and flower beds near the store. Often people are passed out and paramedics or firefighters have to be called.

Neil McArthur, director of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, says Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries is not fulfilling its moral and legal responsibilities. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"This should be a bright red blinking sign for Manitoba Liquor [& Lotteries] to realize that they are not addressing a serious issue and they need to do so," said Neil McArthur, director at the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

"They're making money off people who have serious health problems. They know that — the statistics tell a clear story — so they are not fulfilling the responsibilities that they have, both morally and that was created by the legislation." 

'Posters and billboards aren't enough' 

As a Crown corporation, Liquor & Lotteries has an ethical obligation to protect people from abuse, especially if it's profiting off the sale of alcohol, McArthur said.

"I think it's an incredible revelation," he said. "People can say, 'Oh, this is just one case, one store, one product,' but this should be the revelation that we need to say the programs we have aren't working. The posters and the billboards aren't enough and we need a community-based strategy."

The Downtown BIZ, which gets funding from Liquor & Lotteries for community outreach, has patrols that frequent streets around the store, which they call a "special attention area."

Often the patrols tell people who are drinking it's illegal to do so in public and ask them to stop so they don't have to call the police.

Leo Redhead says he's been addicted to alcohol for a long time and he drinks about 10 bottles of sherry every day. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Leo Redhead, one of the customers outside the Liquor Mart on a recent morning, says he drinks about 10 bottles of sherry a day.

"I've been addicted to drinking for a lot of years," he said; for him, it's about having a good time.

Refused service about 4,000 times

The staggering number of sherry sales at the Ellice location is cause for concern, said Ian Rabb, a recovering alcoholic who started Two Ten Recovery, an organization that allows people who have substance abuse problems to live in a sober environment.

"It's mind-boggling," said Rabb, who's also the director of business development and the public relations officer at the Aurora Recovery Centre, an addictions treatment facility in Gimli, Man.

"I think it's actually irresponsible of the government or liquor commission [MLLC] to have a blind eye."

An empty bottle lies on a mailbox at the corner of Donald and Ellice while downtown street patrol members talk to people nearby. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Liquor & Lotteries said it refused service to customers at the Ellice store who were intoxicated about 4,000 times last year. At the St. Vital store, they refused service only about 150 times.

"It says that it's a different clientele," said Bev Mehmel, director of corporate responsibility at Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries.

'Right to purchase'

She said the corporation is raising the price of the product every quarter by just under 50 cents, following a 2013 recommendation in Manitoba's strategy to reduce alcohol-related harm that called for a review of low-priced, high-alcohol liquor.

Mehmel said it's important to point out addiction is not just a downtown Winnipeg issue — it's just more visible there.

"I mean, there's people in Tuxedo, Charleswood, North Kildonan who have addiction issues."

The Liquor Marts have no way of knowing whether someone is a chronic alcoholic, and instead focus on refusing service to people who are intoxicated, she said.

"We don't have any way of tracking it, and people have the right to purchase products, whether or not it's harmful to them."

Bev Mehmel, director of corporate responsibility at Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries, says they're raising the price of the sherry every quarter. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

McArthur said the chronic alcohol users will be known to people working at the stores, although he doesn't fault staff.

"They should be able and probably have alerted their superiors that this is happening."

The sherry sales point to a failed effort by Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries to encourage Manitobans to drink responsibly, McArthur said.

Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries failed to spend millions of dollars on social responsibility that the corporation is required to spend by law, he pointed out.

In 2015, $869,000 of the legally required social responsibility funding was left unspent, and that amount more than doubled in the past year to $2.1 million, the CBC reported earlier this year.

Mehmel said the corporation is now starting to spend the money and it will be used on social responsibility.  

Thompson store pulled similar product

Sherry has flown off store shelves in Manitoba before. In 2010, the Liquor Mart in Thompson faced an uproar after the store introduced Kingsgate Reserve — another type of sherry — to its shelves.

"There was already a huge problem because of Westminster sherry, or 'Wessy,' on the streets," Lou Morissette, a former liquor inspector in Thompson, said in an email.

There were big lines outside the store in the morning and street chip-ins — where customers bring together enough change to get a bottle — were the norm.

To fight the problem, the store opened later and kept the product behind the till, then later took Kingsgate out of the store.

"In this day and age, my thoughts are there needs to be a better way to cope with addicts than run a dispensary of sherry," Morissette said. The MLL "will preach that potable anything is better than the alternative. In the meantime, the problem spills over into health care, policing and social costs."

Drug of choice

The Main Street Project, which supports homeless people living with addictions, has many clients who buy sherry at the Ellice store.

The organization's director of detox and stabilization wasn't surprised by the numbers and said she was glad clients were drinking that instead of mouthwash or hand sanitizer, but overconsumption is still a big issue.

Emergency responders are often dispatched for check well-being calls around the Ellice Liquor Mart. The City of Winnipeg declined to say how many times in a year they're called to the area around the store. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

"It opens up the conversation in whether we need a managed alcohol program in Manitoba or not, and those numbers would clearly indicate that we do for that population," Tahl East said.

In a managed alcohol program, chronic alcoholics are prescribed a dose of alcohol in a supervised setting to improve daily life and reduce costs to the health-care system.

People living on the streets in Winnipeg often drink sherry to mask pain, East said.

"Alcohol is the drug of the choice to numb the pain, whether it be childhood trauma or some other adverse childhood event or life event that has happened, and so when you take the alcohol away, the pain is now very much there and it's felt."

A managed alcohol program would make financial sense and on the long term, be better for the taxpayer, East believes.

"Our tax dollars are spent much more in hospitals and ambulances and police services due to alcoholism than if we were to manage [the addiction]."

Tahl East is the director of detox and stabilization at the Main Street Project. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Nathan Nickel has researched the effects of alcoholism on the health-care system in Manitoba extensively.

Chronic alcoholics in the province go to hospital two or three times more frequently, he said.

He called the Ellice Liquor Mart situation "really tragic."

He wants fewer barriers to treatment for alcoholics in Manitoba.

"We as a society need to have a sense of shared responsibility for helping to treat individuals with this mental disorder. It's a mental disorder," he said.

Back outside the Liquor Mart, Marilyn Hart has just bought a bottle of sherry.

She gets one whenever she can get enough cash for the purchase, she said.

She said she drinks it inside with friends but she has seen people passed out around the Ellice Liquor Mart after consuming it. She points out bottles dotting downtown streets and parking lots.

"They're everywhere. They're everywhere. Behind the back alleys, especially, there's a whole bunch of them laying around all the time."

The Liquor Mart on Hargrave and Ellice sells staggering numbers of fortified wine known as Sherry often to people living on the streets. Internal sales records obtained by CBC News reveal the product is the store's best seller year after year. 4:16

About the Author

Austin Grabish

Reporter

​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg​ where he files for TV, web and radio. ​​Born and raised in Manitoba, Austin has had an itch for news since he was young. He landed his first byline when he was just 18. Before joining CBC, he reported for several outlets with work running across the country.​ Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca