We over-regulate liquor. I mean that in reference to both the Yukon and Canada as a whole. We treat alcohol as a taboo product to be kept out of sight. We set up complicated monopolies and regulatory structures in order to help us sleep better at night, to give us the impression that we are somehow tackling the issue.
Our current approach has resulted in the Yukon boasting a per capita alcohol consumption rate that ranks us first in the world. This is a showing that is repeated year over year, and not really a feat we should be proud of. It is a statistic that shows that our current approach to alcohol is not working, that as a society we are consuming an unhealthy amount of liquor.
The reality is that we cannot regulate healthy use of liquor. It is impossible for the same reasons why prohibition was not tenable in the United States.
What we can do is focus our efforts less on regulation and more on policies that encourage healthy consumption and programs that treat the social ills associated with such consumption. If we can loosen our regulations and stop treating alcohol as a forbidden fruit, we can move towards a healthier societal attitude towards consumption.
The key to such a move is to first admit that our overly onerous control of liquor sales is not doing much to limit alcohol consumption. We have a weirdly complicated liquor sales policy that, at times, does not seem to make much sense.
Consider the ever-present signs at local hotels which prohibit minors in their restaurants/pubs after 11 a.m. This is because the hotel has a liquor license that allows them to sell off-sales. Why not let kids staying in the hotel eat in the restaurant? Will these children explode if they see a patron having a beer at lunch or buying a six-pack to go? I recognize that there is some choice of the hotel at play here, but still a fairly absurd result.
Then there is the epic journey you need to embark on to purchase a keg of beer. You cannot purchase a keg, which holds around 60 litres of beer, through the retail store; instead, you must order it in advance and pick it up at the warehouse out back.
Before that happens, you must execute a lengthy contract that gives the address where the keg will be consumed, a hefty deposit, a promise to return the keg within a week and, if you do not own the house where the beer will be drank, the approval of the owner of the home.
Of course you can simply purchase 150 cans of beer through the retail store and end up with the same amount of beer, for around the same price, without the hassle. Which is absurd. Why set up such an onerous system to control kegs when one can simply bypass it by purchasing the same amount of alcohol in a different format?
Defenders of our liquor rules may retort with a list of petty complaints and minor nuisances. I’d reply that the more petty regulations we have on the books, the more time and money our government is spending enforcing those regulations and prohibitions, leaving us with less money to actually address the problems stemming from alcohol use.
Such petty regulations and prohibitions also give us the illusion that we are somehow combating our unhealthy consumption of alcohol. A bit of smoke and mirrors, as the heavy regulations in place are empirically doing very little to affect consumption.
The point here is two-fold. First, let’s stop spending time and money administering and enforcing liquor regulations that don’t make much sense. Let’s spend that time and money instead on rehab and support programs. I would advise that our territory undertake a review of the entire regulatory structure surrounding liquor sales, as our current plan simply is not providing healthy results. A central plank of such a review should be a hard look at whether a government-run liquor monopoly is still needed, or whether it is time to fold up the shop.
Second, let’s stop treating alcohol like a banned substance and start treating it like a part of society, much along the lines of continental Europe. In Germany and France alcohol is far more available than in North America, subject to less regulation, and their populations are far less prone to binge drinking than their North American counterparts. We unfortunately inherited the British system of heavy regulation, which has been shown to result in heavy binge drinking from a young age.
At the end of the day the statistics cannot be ignored. We are the biggest per capita consumers of alcohol in the entire world. The status quo is not working, we need a new approach. We need to start looking at ways to encourage healthy consumption of alcohol; we need to be creative and we need to start now.
Graham Lang is a Whitehorse lawyer and long-time Yukoner.