Manitoba

Recovering alcoholic says it's time to let Liquor Mart staff refuse sales to chronic drinkers

A recovering alcoholic wants Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries to introduce a policy that would let store staff refuse to sell booze to customers who are chronic alcoholics.

Former mayor of Thompson wants social responsibility funding increased as community deals with sherry problem

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)

A recovering alcoholic wants Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries to introduce a policy that would let store staff refuse to sell booze to customers who are chronic alcoholics.

Ryan Martens, who started drinking when he was just 13 to deal with childhood trauma, said he was dumbfounded when he read the Crown corporation's response to a CBC story Tuesday.

The story revealed a downtown Liquor Mart on Ellice had sold 103,553 bottles of London Westminster Canadian Apera — low-priced sherry that has a high liquor content — in a three-year period from 2015-2017. CBC compared the sales to a Liquor Mart in St. Vital, which only sold 378 bottles for the same period.

"They are preying on vulnerable and weak people. They know these people have addictions," Martens said.

The 33-year-old, who is getting ready to celebrate a year of being sober this Christmas Day, said he used to drink 12-15 bottles of sherry a day before moving on to harder liquor. Martens took issue with a comment in the story from Liquor and Lotteries director of corporate responsibility Bev Mehmel.

Ryan Martens is getting ready to celebrate a year of being sober. This photo was taken a few months ago. He wasn't always smiling though. He says alcohol made him lose his home, wife and jobs. (Ryan Martens/Submitted)

She told CBC the corporation has no way of knowing whether someone is a chronic alcoholic, when asked why it continues to sell bottles of sherry to a man who told CBC he can drink 10 bottles of it in just one day.

"It made me very upset because it just shows me that they're sitting and making lots of money and the rest of us who are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics have to suffer because of it. It seems to me they're more concerned about the money than they are about helping people," Martens said.

He wants staff to be able to refuse a sale of alcohol to someone when the employee has reasonable grounds to assume they'll abuse the product. Martens said employees never turned him down when he'd show up at Liquor Marts across Winnipeg, including when he had been drinking.

"There was never any refusal for me. I mean I would drive and I'm not condoning this behaviour it was horrible."

Liquor and Lotteries maintains it refuses to sell alcohol to intoxicated persons and said last year at the Ellice store, staff refused service about 4,000 times.

Martens said the staff at the Liquor Mart knew who he was and could have refused to sell to him if a policy allowed them.

"We were on a first-name basis. That's the crazy part."

Thompson Liquor Mart criticized 

The former mayor of the City of Thompson said Liquor and Lotteries recently blindsided the community, which has a sherry problem, when it abruptly decided to open the store in the community an hour earlier this year.

The Liquor Mart on Ellice sold 103,553 bottles of London Westminster Canadian Apera from 2015-2017. Only 378 bottles were sold in the same period at the St. Vital Square Liquor Mart. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Dennis Fenske, who was mayor of the community from 2014 until last month when he retired, said the move came with no consultation. He said sherry has flown off the shelves over the years in Thompson and it's been an issue the city's leadership has had to address.

Fenske said the community has been asking for Liquor and Lotteries to invest more in social responsibility in the community to address issues associated with alcoholism but have been unsuccessful.

"I think in their minds they're doing what they feel is the right amount in regards to social responsibility. We differ and feel there should be more done because there are bigger consequences that should be realized other than just the profit margin on a bottle of Westminster sherry."

He said when the store started to open at 10 a.m. instead of 11 a.m. earlier this year, it compounded the negative effects of alcohol use in the community because people had access to low-priced booze over a longer period of time.

Fenske said the community is judged by outsiders for a section of its downtown where the Liquor Mart is located. He added the city of just under 13,000 people has had more than 4,000 arrests for public intoxication in one year.

While Liquor and Lotteries spends money on a sherry bottle recycling program in Thompson, gives money to the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba and is required by law to spend two per cent of its net income on addictions treatment and research, Fenske doesn't think it goes far enough.

Emergency responders are often dispatched for check well-being calls around the Ellice Liquor Mart in Winnipeg. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

"It needs to be more than that. I'd like to see it in the range of 10 to 15 per cent of revenues because the Crown corporation doesn't have to deal with the day-to-day effects of alcoholism and mental health issues as the communities do."

He also pointed out a CBC story earlier this year that revealed Liquor and Lotteries failed to spend millions of dollars on social responsibility it was required to spend by law.

"The money isn't getting to the communities that need it and Thompson is one of them that needs it the most," he said.

"It's frustrating."

Ryan Martens had many low points in his life due to alcoholism and said he spent time on Winnipeg's streets. He said he could drink 10-15 bottles of sherry in just one day when he was battling an addiction to alcohol. (Ryan Martens/Submitted)

Fenske also rejected the assertion from some that if sherry wasn't sold, chronic alcoholics would drink mouthwash instead.

"That story has been told for 20 years and it's a story that the Crown corp will always tell — if they don't drink our products they'll use other products that are more harmful. Well, that doesn't address the issue of addictions and mental health. That addresses your bottom line. And so I'm sorry I don't agree with that approach."

Martens agreed and wants alcohol to be treated as seriously as a drug like meth is.

"Alcohol to me made me lose everything. I lost my home. I lost my wife. I lost jobs I lost everything because of alcohol," he said. "We're so quick to talk about the meth crisis, well let's talk about the alcohol crisis."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. Since joining CBC in 2016, he's covered several major stories. Some of his career highlights have been documenting the plight of asylum seekers leaving America in the dead of winter for Canada and the 2019 manhunt for two teenage murder suspects. In 2021, he won an RTDNA Canada award for his investigative reporting on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which triggered change. Have a story idea? Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

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