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Editorial: Why is Doug Ford obsessed with expanding alcohol access?

Ontario Premier Doug Ford famously promised 鈥渂uck a beer鈥 during the 2018 election campaign鈥 a promise that remains languishing in the house of broken mirrors, along with ending hallway medicine and building a road to the Ring of Fire. In fact, promising greater access and availability of booze seems to be a cornerstone of the Ford action plan.

To be fair, beer and wine were first unleashed on grocery stores in limited distribution by the Wynne Liberals way back in mid-December of 2015 (starting with beer and later adding wine in 2016), but the Ford Progressive Conservatives have apparently decided to up that game dramatically, expanding sales of both, and those other drinks such as cider and coolers, into convenience stores across the province.

This stance toward booze is remarkably perplexing when one considers the impact that alcoholism had on Premier Ford鈥檚 brother Rob and his family鈥攍eading to a massive downward spiral for that Toronto mayor that went viral online and made Canada鈥檚 largest city the laughing stock of nighttime television hosts around the globe. If anyone would be sensitized to the inadvisability of increasing access to alcohol one would think it might be Premier Ford. Not so.

The social costs of alcohol to our health system is well understood, while impaired driving is once again on the rise.

The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that alcohol-related harms cost Ontario more than $7 billion annually, topping the costs of harms from tobacco and the current opioid crisis combined. This includes a variety of acute and chronic health harms, with more than 200 disease and injury conditions and at least nine cancers adding to the butcher鈥檚 bill. Alcohol is fingered in some $5.9 billion in lost production鈥攑resenting a massive GDP hit as icing on the Progressive Conservative policy cake.

What makes this approach to one of society鈥檚 more impactful vices even more perplexing is that Premier Ford is in such a rush to implement his new expanded booze regime that he is willing to pony up, by some accounts a billion dollars, to make it so a year earlier than the existing contract with the Beer Store would allow. Now that number, espoused by newly minted Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie, might be subject to some review鈥攚hat is generally agreed by all sides is that the cost of bailing on that contract will amount to more than an immediate $252 million鈥攚ith costs associated with lost LCBO revenue and corporate tax holidays involved in the plan likely to well top that 鈥渃onservative鈥 amount.

The LCBO has long proven to be a vital cash cow for the provincial government, kicking up a whopping $1.33 billion in 2022 alone鈥攖hat on top of sales and other taxes. Conservatives have long floated the sale of the Crown agency only to be stymied by Ontario voters鈥 attachment to the LCBO and its budgetary largesse. Underfunding services is a tried-and-true approach to privatization鈥攕ee the current provincial government鈥檚 approach to health services.

On yet another note, what is the rush? There is no need to spend a quarter billion dollars to make it all happen a year early鈥攏ot to mention potentially a cool $1 billion. 

A cynical view might be that Premier Ford is hoping to call a snap election to take advantage of the current federal Liberal malaise and, since the buck-a-beer promise has long since gone skunky, the booze in corner stores might prove to be a winner with a significant portion of the electorate (not exactly a group known for thinking its gut reactions through). Recent polls show 鈥渁 plurality鈥 of voters support expanded alcohol sales鈥攁h, good old populism and the population鈥檚 well-being be damned.

The Ford government is probably the strangest collection of 鈥渃onservatives鈥 in this province鈥檚 history. They have succeeded in delivering a 2024 budget complete with a $9.8 billion deficit (despite rapidly accelerating revenues), easily out-pacing the Wynne government鈥檚 final year鈥檚 budget shortfall of $7.9 billion (a tally that one might add included some pretty serious election year largesse).

Of course, dealing with the province鈥檚 serious and accelerating crisis鈥攕ay housing, mental health and addictions for instance鈥攚ould cost considerably more than the mere $1 billion boondoggle represented by the proposed booze bill鈥攚e must conclude that pulling the cork on expanded alcohol sales could be considered a bargain in the Tory vote-buying playbook.

In these days where bombastic populism seems to have trumped the development of effective public policy, the Ford expansion of access to booze may be a political winner鈥攂ut in the end it will be the Ontario taxpayer who will pay the piper and it will be the ordinary Joe who will be poorer for it.

Premier Ford has proven in the past that he can turn his policy pronouncements around on a dime. We submit this as an instance calling for just such a u-turn.

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Expositor Staff
Expositor Staff
Published online by The Manitoulin Expositor web staff