Thursday, November 15, 2007

Bottoms up for British Columbia booze prices?

A health pitch for the government: the lower the alcohol content, the lower the price.

The legislature's finance committee unveils its recommendations this afternoon, and there was an intriguing flurry of last-minute activity to do with liquor pricing that makes one wonder.

The committee will be forwarding suggestions to Finance Minister Carole Taylor for next year's budget. The ideas come from hundreds of submissions from the public, including people who showed up at public hearings the MLAs held around B.C.

The deadline for submissions was in late October. But in the first week of November, two doctors popped up at the committee's last working session and got their own hearing.

One of them was the Provincial Medical Health Officer, Dr. Perry Kendall. He got the special invitation to appear based on his status and expertise.

And he brought with him Dr. Tim Stockwell, the director of the University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research, and a recognized expert in alcohol-related policy.

The pair made a fairly compelling pitch for a significant change in the way booze is taxed and priced in B.C.

It's in line with B.C. Liberal thinking on health policy and it could conceivably raise up to $88 million a year to deal with the addictions that underlie homelessness, street crime and other social problems.

Kendall said the concept could ease the burden on the health and justice systems, improve community safety and be a wellspring of revenue for prevention and treatment services.

Part of the idea is simply to price and tax wine, beer and spirits according to their alcohol content.

The lower the alcohol content, the lower the price. It's almost the reverse of the current pricing scheme, Stockwell said.

He published the proposal a year ago, based on what his native Australia has done with booze taxes. It's been circulating since then and has attracted enough attention that the politicians from both sides of the legislature were keen to hear about it first-hand.

"A fundamental suggestion is that tax rates should take account of the health, social and economic costs of the product," he told MLAs. "This is no ordinary product ... The main thrust of my point today is that the way alcohol is priced through the liquor stores actually gives more incentives for people to choose higher alcohol-content drinks than lower alcohol-content drinks."

Stockwell's analysis of B.C.'s liquor pricing is that the incentives "are all the wrong way around."

Beers with less than four-per-cent alcohol are relatively more expensive than more potent brands.

Pricing for coolers -- fruit drinks mixed with alcohol -- leans even heavier in favour of encouraging people to buy higher alcohol-content brands.

Stockwell said the change could be revenue-neutral, in the sense that the price relationship between beer, wine and spirits would be maintained.

It would amount to a difference of several dollars between a case of lower-alcohol beer and a higher-alcohol case. There'd be a similar difference in wine and spirits.

He said the centre is also releasing a study next month showing most people can't tell the difference between low and mid-strength beer. (They tested some UVic students with a pub night and found "they enjoyed themselves just as much with the 3.8 per cent as the 5.5 per cent.")

And people don't necessarily just drink more. Stockwell said it's hard to get drunk on low-alcohol beer, because people fill up too quickly.

The revenue projections stem from a related idea -- a flat five-cent-a-drink levy dedicated to harm reduction.

And both doctors stress there is a lot of harm that needs to be reduced. Absolute alcohol consumption per adult has increased continuously in the last six years. Kendall said there's been a "substantial increase" in hospitalizations for alcohol-related conditions.

Neither of them brought up one of the obvious reasons for the increase in consumption -- the proliferation of private liquor stores brought on by the Liberal policy. There are now 1,273 liquor stores in the province, hundreds more than a few years ago.

Said Stockwell: "We read in the papers every day about the seriousness of this problem and the lack of resources to deal with it."

A five-cent levy in Australia generally went over well with the public, he said.

"They hate alcohol prices going up, but if they see the funds going toward a useful function like more treatment ... that's usually supported."

It would encourage local production of more low-alcohol drinks, reduce alcohol-related deaths and injuries and be accepted by the public, he said.

There's no telling whether the concept will make it into the report being released today. And even if it does, it still has to go to the finance minister for consideration before it makes it into next February's budget.

author: Les Leyne

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007

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