Pushing Alcohol While Health Experts Say Risk-Free Drinking Is a Myth


Looking back, I’m struck by how Canada’s approach to alcohol and cigarettes has almost reversed since I was a student back in the late 1970s.

At that time, I worked part-time in the last of what the Liquor Control Board of Ontario called conventional stores. Back then, the L.C.B.O. took the “control” part of its name seriously. Its older stores did everything possible to make people avoid them. Aside from some dusty display bottles of selected wines, all of the merchandise was hidden away behind a counter. Customers had to search out what they wanted to buy on lists of everything in the store that were behind glass panels, and write down the product’s name, brand number (Mateus rosé was 1086 B) and price. Then shoppers passed their slips to a cashier who, after receiving payment, turned it over to a clerk like me who fetched and bagged the goods.

I must confess that my colleagues and I were sometimes less than friendly. We were also repeatedly reminded not to give recommendations or advice to customers — they were strictly on their own.

But, conversely, smoking in offices and shops, including L.C.B.O. stores, was rampant at that time. Cigarette makers sponsored sports and cultural events, and their ads and products dominated corner stores and even some pharmacies.

Now it’s cigarettes that are hidden away in stores behind blank cabinets, and they come in generic, government-mandated packaging with gruesome photos of tobacco’s health effects. All forms of advertising by the tobacco advertising are a distant memory.

In contrast, at the L.C.B.O. today, control has been dislodged by aggressive marketing and promotion. Many of its stores are smartly designed, with attractive wooden shelving and lighting similar to what you might find in a costly clothing boutique. The board produces a free glossy magazine about drinks, and food to serve with them, and offers customers airline loyalty points and discounts.

It’s not alone. When I cross the river to Gatineau, Quebec, the provincially owned Société des alcools du Québec stores seem to be in a competition with their Ontario counterparts when it comes to pleasing design, attractiveness and product promotion and discounting.

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