Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Smarter Pricing for Alcohol

Victoria Times Colonist

Alcohol abuse carries a high cost, affecting everything from relationships to health to crime. It is the most destructive drug available in B.C.

With that in mind, the provincial government should ensure that more potent drinks carry a stiffer price.

That move has been recommended by the B.C. Coalition for Action on Alcohol Reform, which says the government needs to stop allowing the alcohol industry to market high-powered cheap drinks to young people and alcoholics.

Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman, who is responsible for the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, has expressed a reluctance to raise alcohol tax rates, because B.C. already has the highest rates in the country.

Those taxes could be, however, reworked to reflect the alcohol content in the bottles without increasing the overall tax hit. The government already takes in about $890 million from liquor sales; a revision to penalize the more potent drinks would not increase the total if the rates on lighter drinks were cut.

There are many inconsistencies in the pricing structure. A six-pack of eight-per-cent beer is $7.99, while a six-pack of low-strength beer is $11. Hard lemonade brands with a high alcohol content cost less than ones with less alcohol. Low prices are also a concern; a bottle of Vincor's Vex Hard Pink Lemonade, with seven per cent alcohol, costs just $1.59, less than some soft drinks.

The government should be discouraging young people from drinking to excess, yet it is pricing high-alcohol drinks in a way that encourages abuse. B.C.'s minimum retail prices are set without regard for the percentage of alcohol in each drink.

Provincial health officer Perry Kendall urged the government two years ago to introduce a pricing system that reflected the alcohol content. No action has been taken here -- although Saskatchewan has introduced a similar system in an attempt to reduce the availability of cheap drinks to the more vulnerable members of society.

Since Saskatchewan's system was introduced in April, the sales of cheap, high-alcohol products -- those considered to be high risk -- has dropped by 12.6 per cent.

In the 1980s and 1990s, B.C. sold low-alcohol beers at a low price, but they were not as popular as regular beers. Still, it would be worth taking another look at how alcohol is priced. It only makes sense for the prices to match the costs that come with alcohol.

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