Public health officials fear trouble as Ontario plans widespread booze sales

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Local public health officials who’ve called for tighter rules on alcohol sales to limit its harm are expressing disappointment wit the provincial government’s quarter-billion-dollar plan to allow booze on shelves at corner stores.

Premier Doug Ford has announced his government will spend $225 million so eligible convenience, big box, and grocery stores can sell alcohol, starting in some spots this August. Southwestern Public Health, which oversees St. Thomas and Elgin and Oxford counties, has concern over the health implications.

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“We’re disappointed” by the move, said Peter Heywood, director of its community health program. “What they’re doing is choosing convenience over the health and well-being of Ontarians.”

Last fall, the public health body’s board approved recommendations for governing the sale of alcohol, including tougher advertising regulations, higher taxes and greater access to treatment. “Alcohol-related harm” is a “significant public health issue” in the region, Heywood said.

Every year in Elgin and Oxford counties, there are 76 deaths, 388 hospitalizations and 3,707 emergency department visits due to alcohol, he said.

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But an e-mail to The Free Press, finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy’s office said safe and responsible sale of alcohol in Ontario is a priority for the provincial government. “We will be taking a responsible, measured approach to ensure the transition is smooth, safe and stable in the expanded alcohol marketplace.”

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Queen’s Park is paying the Beer Store $225 million so the wider alcohol sales can happen before the province’s deal with the retailer expires in 2025. The sped-up effort is all part of keeping a political promise, one expert said.

“They made a promise to do this, and so they would feel, perhaps, some obligation to fulfill the promise.” said Peter Woolstencroft, a retired University of Waterloo political scientist.  “It looks like it’s a way of clearing the deck and it cost taxpayers a fair bit of change.”

Said Heywood: “It’s a big number and certainly there’s a significant concern around mental health and addictions in our community.”

Ontario’s health-care system needs more funding to aid those struggling with substance abuse, Heywood said. Provincial officials note the government in December announced $10 million to “ensure alcohol continues to be sold and consumed safely.”

bwilliams@postmedia.com

@BrianWatLFPress

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

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