Reforms expected through 2015
The BC government is in the midst of implementing significant changes to BC’s liquor laws and policy. The changes result from modernization recommendations contained in a report written by MLA John Yap, following last year’s Liquor Policy Review. The report was wide-ranging and included 73 recommendations related to most sectors of the industry. Many of the more specific recommendations are summarized below.
Changes that will affect BC’s wineries include: increased promotion of BC wine products, simplifying licensing requirements for low risk activities such as picnic areas at wineries, streamlining licensing processes for wineries, allowing the sampling and sale of wine at farmers’ markets, making it easier for consumers to purchase wine at tasting events (including temporary on-site private and government stores), and allowing secondary tasting rooms for wineries.
Changes that will affect restaurants and bars include: allowing happy hour specials subject to minimum pricing guidelines, allowing minors into pubs with their families subject to guidelines, removing the requirement to order food in restaurants when ordering a drink, and flexibility in operating an establishment so as to allow conversion from food-primary to liquor-primary at a certain hour.
Changes affecting various other sectors include: an appeal process for decisions of the licensing branch, loosening of the requirement to use fenced off “beer gardens,” an overhaul of the special occasion licensing system, simpler licensing for stadiums and theatres, removing restrictions on sampling alcohol, allowing off-site storage for private licensees, allowing growler service in retail stores, and site-wide licensing for hotels.
In addition, and significantly for consumers, the government has also announced changes to both the retail and wholesale sectors for liquor distribution. The current plan creates two new ways to sell liquor in grocery stores: the first is a “store within a store” model where alcohol will be sold in a segregated area of the grocery store with its own cashier, and the second is the ability to obtain one of a limited number of new licenses that will permit the sale of BC VQA wines on regular grocery store shelves.
Nevertheless, aside from the new VQA licenses, the current moratorium on issuing new private retail licenses will be maintained so the only way to open a “store within a store” is to move an existing store. The current 1 km distance separation rule for liquor retailers will be maintained (and expanded to include government stores). The 5 km maximum relocation rule for retailers will be eliminated, allowing licensees to move stores from rural areas to more populous urban ones.
Finally, the government has also announced that BC’s byzantine wholesale pricing structure for liquor will be revised, a new percentage-based wholesale markup system will be introduced, and all retailers (both government and private) will pay the same wholesale price for liquor products (apparently the current intention is that restaurants/hotels/bars will not be included in this policy).
The changes are being implemented over a staggered time frame ending in 2015. For up to date information on the progress of implementation, the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch maintains a table here (with links to supporting documents): pssg.gov.bc.ca/lclb/policy/index.htm.
In addition, a complete re-write of the existing Liquor Control and Licensing Act is scheduled to be introduced in spring 2015.
Mark Hicken is a wine industry lawyer in Vancouver and President of the Modernize Wine Association of BC.