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NWT Chamber of Commerce: Will new GNWT booze rules have a dash of advanced health measures?

Anyone paying attention to the bureaucratic fermentation process of the NWT’s new beer, wine and hard liquor laws might have felt underserved after the recent public hearing on Bill 83 in Yellowknife.
The NWT Chamber of Commerce believes liquor laws should benefit business while also increasing social responsibility. It appears the GNWT is moving in those directions with a new Liquor Act from the Finance Department and the just-issued Alcohol Strategy from the Department of Health. Adobe Stock photo

Anyone paying attention to the bureaucratic fermentation process of the NWT’s new beer, wine and hard liquor laws might have felt underserved after the recent public hearing on Bill 83 in Yellowknife.

Expecting to draft a written submission to the Standing Committee on Government Operations — or even sidle up in person before the MLAs in the Eagle Room on that June evening — I went on a research bender into the new booze rules.

NWT Chamber of Commerce column standard

I compared the existing Liquor Act to the changes found in Bill 83 and looked at everything the NWT Chamber of Commerce and other organizations have written about the way alcohol is imported, made, transported and sold in the NWT.

Slinging booze is big business and is part of a complete sociable outing for many people — local or just visiting — and the NWT desperately needs to diversify its economy and provide opportunities for growth in sectors such as tourism, hospitality and entertainment.

Generally speaking, tough liquor sales and service restrictions do more harm than good. Let the market decide what it wants. Let communities decide if they want to restrict or be completely dry.

During public engagement sessions, participants repeatedly stated that people take larger risks to get around oppressive restrictions and that bootleggers thrive when retail hours are cut or bars can’t open on certain days.

Another common theme suggested high prices are unnecessary and are causing problems, such as illegal importation, lost revenue for the NWT and risks for vulnerable people as they take increased chances to acquire money. Increasing access to safe, legal liquor is the best way to attempt to curb bootlegging.

But back to Bill 83, which is likely to soon become the new Liquor Act.

I didn’t attend the public hearing in Yellowknife last month as I had little new to say about what was in Bill 83. Where were all the highly anticipated and very welcome changes that were in the What We Heard Liquor Legislation Review of last March?

A few examples:

-Allowing a wider selection of products in retail stores, which operate under contract with the government.

-Added retail services, such as wine pairing advice, cooking classes and other services that create a positive atmosphere around liquor were highly supported.

-Continue to have server training available and mandatory for anyone who sells and serves liquor. But also make security training available for anyone who sells and serves liquor.

-There was high support for ferment-on-premises businesses as a new concept for the NWT. This new business opportunity would see customers make their own beer and wine, and store it at the business until it is ready.

-Allow retail sales every day of the week and on holidays. And provide more community control over liquor availability and lengths of temporary bans.

-Have entire-site licences available to eliminate the need for fenced-off beer gardens at large events and festivals. Actually, it would be best to modernize and update the entire licensing, enforcement and appeals process.

I asked Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek if all or some of those changes will turn up when regulations are drafted in support of the new Liquor Act.

“The recommendations you have referred to (operating hours on statutory holidays, whole site permits, ferment-on-premises businesses, etc.) will indeed be addressed in the regulations, not in the Liquor Act itself,” she stated in an email. “That being said, Bill 83 does make important changes that set the stage for regulatory changes.”

The minister added that her objective is to ensure that Bill 83 receives assent during the life of the 19th Legislative Assembly, which expires following the Tuesday, Oct. 3, general election.

“Once this milestone is achieved, my department will undertake the task of drafting new regulations,” she stated. “When both the act and regulations are complete, they will be brought into force together.”

Including the more social or trendy aspects of the Liquor Act in regulations will allow the GNWT to respond to lobbying efforts in the years to come without requiring a complete opening and review of the act.

Public drunkenness

One area that will need attention of the NWT — in regional centres and Yellowknife in particular — is public drunkenness and consumption of liquor in the streets. It has been a troubling and sad issue for years, but the new Liquor Act does address it somewhat.

The existing and proposed laws include this passage: “Except as provided by this act and the regulations, no person shall consume liquor in a public place. No person shall be intoxicated in a public place if the intoxication renders the person likely to cause injury to themselves or be a danger or nuisance to others.”

If we are serious about cleaning up the image of Yellowknife’s downtown, a discussion needs to take place to determine if RCMP and municipal bylaw officers should increase patrols of those core-area streets and have a zero-tolerance attitude about lawbreakers.

Yes, bylaw officers need to be allowed to enforce the Liquor Act. It’s not really to punish the street drinkers, but it’s to send message that it is not an acceptable activity.

One recent national study showed the NWT’s consumption rate at 786 standard drinks per person aged 15 and over per year. Another from the Canadian Institute of Health showed the rate for hospitalization due entirely to alcohol for the NWT was six times higher than the national average.

One last issue: At present, with Bill 83 the Finance Department is trying to “streamline how the industry is regulated, ensure safe public access to liquor, enhance community control over liquor, and modernize liquor enforcement.”

But down the hall, the Health Department appears ready to start a 21st century temperance movement. In its Alcohol Strategy Final Report from March, a suggested action is to adjust alcohol prices to “incentivize” the purchase of lower-alcohol products.

From Page 21: “Evidence suggests that when alcohol prices increase, consumers tend to drink less, there are fewer alcohol-related problems and there are lower rates of alcohol dependence.

“It is recommended that the NWT … applies a lower mark-up to lower-alcohol products and a higher mark-up for higher-alcohol products within the same beverage categories, to encourage consumers to purchase lower alcohol content products.”

Huh? Yeah, that won’t do anything except hurt bars and restaurants, where most patrons generally consume drinks with a normal alcohol content. And how would pricing work per drink?

The bottom line is that the NWT Chamber believes liquor laws should benefit business while also increasing social responsibility. Subject to the regulations that are adopted later this year (hopefully), the new Liquor Act should do just that. And apart from the pricing scheme, the Alcohol Strategy Final Report details some positive improvements that could really help those suffering from addictions.