Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Coming to an Ontario Farmers' Market Near You!

Good news for us wine lovers, and not so good news for addictions and mental health professionals: the Ontario government has announced that they're going to expand the 'Our Wine Country' program to promote VQA wines in the province. What does this actually mean for us? It means that the government is going to allow VQA wines to be sold in farmers markets!

While my work-brain is saying 'hm... that is a change that will further erode the system of alcohol sales that we have, which is actually a really good tool for the taxation and control of alcohol, and especially effective at limiting sales to minors,' my wine-brain is saying 'THIS IS AWESOME!'

You see, I lead a little bit of a double-life when it comes to alcohol-related things. Part of my professional work involves asking the government to make sure that they put programs and systems in place to limit the health-related harms of alcohol. Alcohol, sadly, is a leading killer of people, not only through accidental death (vehicle collisions, violence, falls, drownings), but through various cancers (stomach, colon, throat, liver), accidental poisonings, chronic diseases (depression, cirrhosis, hypertension), and acute health events (stroke). It is also highly addictive, with 15% of people who drink alcohol experiencing addiction.

There have been lots of studies looking at how the availability of alcohol interacts with rates of drinking and alcohol addiction, and the relationship is direct: make alcohol more widely-available, get higher rates of injury, death, and addiction attributable to alcohol. At the same time, the Ontario government makes money hand over fist from alcohol sales. The LCBO hands over billions of dollars (8 billion last year, I think), which mostly go into the health-care system, and much of which ends up being used for alcohol-related harms. In 2002, alcohol-related injuries and deaths cost 5.2 billion hard-earned tax dollars - that's quite a lot, wouldn't you say? And that was a long time ago, too. So maybe they should raise the costs and keep a tight hold on where and when alcohol can be sold. Maybe this would do a better job of protecting the health of the people of Ontario, as well as our money.

That said, as you probably know if you're reading this blog, I'm a wine sommelier by hobby and really enjoy all kinds of alcoholic beverages. I used to live in Quebec, where craft brewed beers were available in the depanneur across the street, and I could even take my empties back to them to get my deposit. I embraced the ability to drink bottles of wine in public parks, and to go to 'bring your own' restaurants for delicious meals accompanied by what I liked to drink best.

With each relaxation of Ontario's prohibition-style liquor laws, my soul sings "ahhh, civilization at last!" But, I know that we're not doing ourselves any favours by drinking greater amounts of alcohol, and I feel for the 1.5 million people in Ontario who struggle with alcohol dependency and may now have to avoid the wonderful farmers markets when wine invades that formerly alcohol-free space.

It will be interesting to see what kind of program the government is able to come up with that involves whatever level of sales control they find appropriate. It will be convenient to be able to buy wine at the farmers' market, but I'm assuming that the teenage farm helper will not be the one to sell it to me, nor that she will have the responsibility of carding people who look under-age. I also wonder what they will need to do to control the pricing and the revenue. There are a lot of challenges, to be sure.

My wine-self hopes that this program will get up and running by this summer, if they can get all the policy kinks straightened out, but it might not come to fruition until next year. And since 2013 was such a banner grape-growing year, there should be plenty of delicious VQA wine for sale in 2015. Wouldn't it be great to grab a bottle while picking up some veggies for dinner? I do think so. Let's think positively, wine friends: wine at farmers' markets could be just around the bend.

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