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Lay down the laws

B.C. government announces sweeping changes to complicated and outdated liquor laws

Some bars are open until midnight, and some are open until 2 a.m. Some bars offer live entertainment, while others do not. Some bars have big screen televisions, games or dancing, while others are out of luck.

Some bars and restaurants require you to buy food if you want to purchase an alcoholic beverage, unless of course you agree to sit in a specified area with no more than 20 seats.

Some little bars and restaurants are jam-packed, while others have to stop letting people inside even though they’re half-empty. Some bars have more than one license, which means different rules might apply to a patio than to inside the same establishment.

You can buy liquor at government stores either six or seven days a week, depending on your proximity to tourist areas. You can go to one of the 290 independently-owned cold beer and wine stores in the province on Sundays, and later on in the evening than government stores if you’re willing to pay a little more, but you can’t purchase spirits there.

As they currently stand, B.C.’s liquor laws are confusing, outdated, overly strict, and often contradictory – a real bureaucratic nightmare for customers and license holders alike.

For the town Whistler, which plays host to an international clientele that is accustomed to far more lenient liquor regulations, these laws are a constant source of embarrassment; backwards thinking in an otherwise modern and world class destination.

Some progress has been made in recent years following the 1999 Surich Report, an independent review of the provinces’ liquor laws that included a long list of recommendations to bring the province up to speed with the reality of the day and the needs of consumers and retailers.

Provincial liquor stores can open on Sunday providing they’re located in a tourist area and don’t conflict with independent liquor retailers. Restaurants can serve liquor to people who don’t order food if they sit in a visually separated area. Liquor retailers can now accept credit cards and stay open a little later in the evenings.

It was a start, but a slow one that more than likely added more bureaucracy to the equation.

Rather than address each recommendation in the Surich report in a piecemeal fashion, on March 15 the Liberal government announced its intention to reform the liquor laws from the ground up, streamlining the bureaucracy while improving access for customers and competitiveness for independent retailers.

For temperance-minded people, the government was careful to spin the reform as a safety issue.

"Our priority in reforming liquor licensing is to increase public safety," said Solicitor General Rich Coleman, who oversees the provincial Liquor Control and Licensing Branch. "At present, liquor control and licensing branch officials have to spend their time enforcing a complex and archaic system of 19 different license classes or sub-classes. As a result, resources are diverted away from addressing important public safety concerns like illegal liquor sales, overcrowding, over-consumption and sales to minors."

Whatever the government’s true intentions are, our provincial liquor laws are in for an overhaul. A four-part strategy, approved in open cabinet on March 15, will streamline the number of licensing categories for liquor-serving establishments to two; allow for the sale of spirits in cold beer and wine stores; lift the cap on the number of cold beer and wine stores; and change provisions to increase liquor retail choice in small communities.

In terms of licensing, there are currently seven categories of licenses to cover 19 different types of venues that sell liquor. Under the new system there are two license categories, Food Primary and Liquor Primary.

Food Primary covers restaurants, dining rooms, cafés and other venues where food service is the main business. These venues can only serve liquor with food. Convenience venues like takeout, fast food, street vendors and most food courts, along with youth-orientated restaurants, will still not be able to get licensed.

The Liquor Primary covers bars, pubs, clubs and other venues where the main business is selling liquor. Any business that is in the hospitality, entertainment or beverage business that is not prohibited by the regulations, such as an establishment with a youth focus like a video arcade, can apply for a liquor licence. There is a sub-category for clubs under the Liquor Primary, which would retain both their special privileges and restrictions. All businesses will have more flexibility in the types of entertainment they can offer.

Both Food and Liquor primary operators can apply for any hours of service between 9 a.m. and 4 a.m. All patrons have to leave a licensed establishment 30 to 60 minutes after the end of liquor service.

Local governments will have input for license types. For Food Primary applications they can decide hours of operation, and the types of entertainment that are permitted (i.e. strip bars, dancing).

If the local government approves, an establishment can hold both primary licenses, which would allow a business to shift from Food Primary to Liquor Primary during alternate hours.

For Liquor Primary operations, local governments can restrict capacity, hours of operation, entertainment, and what types of facilities are allowed. Capacity, otherwise known as the asses-to-seats ratio, is decided by local governments and the province after the establishment demonstrates community support and need for the capacity, with the maximum capacity decided by the local building codes. Liquor Primary venues can also apply for a dual license if the community is supportive.

Not every license holder will be happy with the changes. With every bar and restaurant on a level playing field, some establishments will lose their competitive advantage.

As far as allowing cold beer and wine stores to double the area of independent establishments up to 2,000 square feet, to allow for spirits’ sales, both the spirits industry and independent retailers have been clamouring for this kind of freedom for a long time.

"This announcement is an important watershed for British Columbia consumers who can now make their adult beverage decisions free of arbitrary and restrictive regulations," said Jan Westcott, President and CEO of Spirits Canada. "This end to unfair discrimination and counterproductive interference in the free market is most welcome."

For years, the spirits industry has objected to the treatment that spirits have received, arguing that a drink is a drink, whether it’s beer, wine or spirits. By keeping alcohol out of cold beer and wine stores, they believe the province was insinuating that spirits are somehow worse than other forms of alcohol.

The decision will allow consumers more choice, and put the spirits industry on equal footing with beer and wine, says Westcott.

"We all recognize that today’s beverage alcohol consumer is a sophisticated shopper who moves with relative ease between the beer, wine and spirits categories."

In Whistler, where three cold beer and wine stores have to compete with two, and possibly three, government liquor stores, the announcement was a welcome one.

"We’re quite happy about it actually, we get a lot of requests for spirits and this will help our sales out during the week," says Bonnie Casavant, the owner and operator of the Blackcomb Beer and Wine Store. "We’ve been expecting this for a while, just from rumours through the different reps for different companies, and from the liquor board."

Cold beer and wine stores will be able to stock spirits starting April 2. Casavant has already put her order in, and plans to stock the full range of spirits.

She says she has yet to see any of the new regulations in writing, and doesn’t have any plans at this point to increase the size of the store.

As for the government’s plan to increase the number of cold beer and wine stores in the province – the first increase since a moratorium on new stores in 1992 – she hopes the government will limit the increase to underserved areas rather than locations that would be in close competition with existing stores.

"I would be concerned if they were going to pop up everywhere," says Casavant.

Any new stores would have to apply for a Liquor Primary license, and all applications will be processed individually, with input from the liquor control and licensing branch.

While it’s hard to compete against government stores, Casavant sees the new laws as the first step towards privatization of the industry in B.C.

The last part of the Liberal’s plan is to allow for more rural liquor agency stories in communities larger than 300, or near tourism destination resorts like ski hills.

The new rules should be in place by May 1, after which time applications will be considered by the liquor distribution branch.

The rural agency store program began in 1975 and is an extension of the liquor distribution branch’s government liquor store system. There are currently 144 rural agency stores in communities across B.C.