Mental health advocates are warning Ontario’s plan to vastly expand the retail availability of some alcoholic drinks could come with harmful consequences.
Earlier this month, Premier Doug Ford announced that starting in 2026, Ontarians will be able to buy beer, wine, cider and seltzers at convenience stores, big box outlets, some gas stations and more supermarkets, marking a major overhaul in how alcohol is sold in the province.
Calling it “the largest expansion of consumer choice and convenience since the end of prohibition almost 100 years ago,” the province estimates lower-alcohol products will soon be available at 8,500 new locations. Ontario will become the third jurisdiction in Canada to offer beer in corner stores and the first to sell ready-to-drink cocktails in those locations.
“This new open marketplace is going to create new opportunities for local brewers, wineries and retailers. It’s going to support local jobs, and most importantly it’s going to give people more choice and convenience,” Ford said during a news conference at a Toronto convenience store on Dec. 13.
“We’ve got to treat our people of Ontario like adults, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Coalition urges caution
The province said it will boost “social responsibility and public health efforts” by $10 million over the next five years to address concerns about the expansion.
However, a coalition of three mental health groups including the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Addictions and Mental Health Ontario and Children’s Mental Health Ontario issued a statement the day after the announcement “urging caution” as the province rolls out the changes.
“Increasing the number of alcohol outlets has been shown to increase negative health outcomes including violence, injuries, alcohol-related crashes, and death by suicide,” the coalition said, urging the province to ensure that “crucial community mental health and addictions supports” are considered as part of the expansion.
Dr. Susan Farrell, CEO of the CMHA’s Ottawa branch, said these are common concerns among advocates.
“The common perspective that we have is that alcohol policies really need to be based on health and well-being of communities and not just as a chance to increase revenue,” she told CBC Radio’s All In A Day earlier this week.
I think the issue is to really focus on an investment for alcohol-related harms, and not increase it by increasing access.– Dr. Susan Farrell, CMHA Ottawa
Failing to do that will place the health-care system under even greater strain than it’s already facing, Farrell warned.
“It’s a strain on the system because of the significant cost, both personal and financial, of alcohol use disorders. I don’t believe it’s about whether or not we’re treating people like adults,” she said, noting that $10 million over five years won’t go very far in a province with the size and population of Ontario.
“I think the issue is to really focus on an investment for alcohol-related harms, and not increase it by increasing access.”
The ‘harm paradox’
Tim Stockwell, a professor at the University of Victoria’s department of psychology and co-principal investigator with the Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation (CAPE), said there have been “hundreds” of studies looking at the harmful impact of increased access to alcohol.
In B.C., Stockwell said the “rapid privatization” of alcohol sales in the early 2000s led to an increase in consumption, followed by an increase in alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations.
“That’s just one example. There’s evidence from all over the world,” he told CBC’s All In A Day last week.
Those harmful effects are felt disproportionately in lower-income areas, Stockwell noted.
“It’s called the harm paradox, and it’s seen everywhere,” he said. “People that are less well off are more vulnerable to the harm that alcohol can do because there’s a lot of other risk factors there.”
Stockwell also warns, with thousands of new retailers competing for alcohol sales, prices will likely drop, and consumption will likely rise, especially in poorer areas. So, too, will the number of alcohol-related deaths in Ontario, he said.
“There will be upward pressure on that number with this rapid increase in the number of stores, and also downward pressure on price as a result of these policies.”
Limiting access and increasing the minimum price of alcohol will have the opposite effect, he said, and will save taxpayers money in the long run.
“It’s very targeted at the harm: Deaths go down, revenues go up, and actually many sectors of the industry make more money. So the best things to do are not to throw money at the problem, [but] have evidence-based, effective policies in the first place.”
A failing grade
CAPE recently produced its third “report card” grading each province and territory by comparing their alcohol policies to public health outcomes in each jurisdiction.
Ontario scored just 40 per cent, a failing grade by anyone’s measure, but the third-highest in the country, just behind Manitoba and Quebec. That’s before Ontario’s new retail policies take hold.
The Ontario Public Health Association also raised concerns earlier this year before the overhaul was announced.
“Research and real-world evidence show that when alcohol becomes cheaper and more available, consumption increases, and so does alcohol-related harm,” the group wrote in a news release.
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