HRM’s Municipal Alcohol Policy – Good Intentions Gone Bad

At its meeting on April 29th, 2014, Halifax Regional Council will be considering the next steps in its long and winding road towards potentially adopting a Municipal Alcohol Policy. The next step under consideration is a consultation process that will extend the timeline considerably, at some (thankfully) apparently modest cost, according to the staff report. But in reading the lengthy document, found here  (HRM Municipal Alcohol Policy Proposed Public Consultation Approach – Apr 29/14 Regional Council – HRM – 140429ca1118.pdf ), I began to think about how all this started, and how we got to this stage.

While there may have been some grumblings earlier, my first recollection of this topic came when Councillor Gloria McCluskey – who happens to not only be the Council member for the district in which I live, but also both a former co-worker at the Department of Municipal Affairs way back in the 1980s, a fellow member of Brightwood Golf Club, and someone whom I actually quite like – began raising questions about whether Halifax ought to be accepting sponsorship money from beer companies for municipal events like the Natal Day festivities and the Christmas tree lighting. Why Gloria was questioning this I do not know for sure. I know that she likes the occasional glass of wine, although that really makes little difference in this instance. I don’t know if she had heard comments from constituents or others questioning the appropriateness of beer money being used to support municipal events like this. Whether she had also been told by some of Nova Scotia’s anti-alcohol crusaders that this was all just part of the evil industry’s nefarious plan to convince children to drink, I do not know, though I would not be surprised. I have heard that allegation repeated by a few of those who work in that realm.

Working in the industry for the last 11 years or so, I know this sort of thing is absolute blather. You cannot even get a brewery to donate logoed merchandise to a charity auction if they are told it is a fundraiser that benefits an activity involving children, such as for a soccer team. In the case of these municipal events, the sponsorship was from Keith’s beer. Most people in Halifax know that Alexander Keith was once Mayor of Halifax, and that his brewery has been operating here in various forms since the 1820s. The current facility on Agricola Street employs just under 200 people in production, supply chain, sales, and management roles, and is an important economic presence in the city. They also run a tourist-oriented attraction at their original Lower Water Street brewery site, and HRM even designated that area as the brewery district about a dozen years ago. The sponsorship was the company’s way of acknowledging all of that and showing their appreciation for the many years of support they have received from the people of Halifax.

Corporate sponsorships are often confused with product advertising. They are not at all the same thing, though the difference is subtle at times. Generally speaking, product advertising is designed to help sell, or at least raise awareness of, a product. Corporate sponsorship is far less about the sell and more about making people aware of the company and what it does. Companies do sponsorships for a number of reasons. Boards of Directors and management now understand the need to invest in corporate social responsibility, a type of giving back to communities and people they touch in running their business. In Canada one of the best examples of this is CIBC’s long-standing Run For The Cure involvement. Is that designed to get more people to use CIBC as their bank? Not in any direct way, although certainly the goodwill that has created does not hurt them when people are making decisions about such things. But I suspect factors such as fees, interest rates, branch locations, online services and all the other things we look for in a bank are far more important. The idea of being a good corporate citizen is not a new one, but it is something that escapes some who believe that companies are only out to maximize profits by any means.

So I think it is fair to say that the people at Keith’s were caught a bit off-guard at the suggestion their sponsorship of these municipal events was in any way inappropriate. Their initial response, as I recall, was simply to state that their sponsorship was for reasons like those I mentioned above, and let the matter die a natural death. However, at some point the suggestion was floated that these events, particularly the Christmas Tree lighting, were family events with a large proportion of children in attendance, and that it was wrong for a beer company to have their name and logo attached to such things. While that suggestion is more than a bit silly to my way of thinking, you must remember that I grew up in a time when as a 10 year-old I would write to the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs each year asking for a wall calendar for my room like the kind you used to see in barber shops, and if I was lucky enough to have them send me one, it would come with an Export A cigarette logo on the bottom (for the record, I never started smoking Export A). So in recognition that perhaps times had changed and that their generosity to HRM was no longer universally welcomed despite their long history as part of the city, Keith’s took their ball and went home, no doubt feeling a bit hurt.

Naturally, the rather ad-hoc way this was handled led some at HRM Council to proclaim that we needed a municipal alcohol policy of some sort to provide a framework for both these kinds of decisions and many other aspects of the role of alcohol in our fair city. This is where things threatened to go completely off the rails. A word of explanation is in order here.

Much of the anti-alcohol activism we have seen over the last several years comes from a single playbook. “Alcohol Justice”, a self-proclaimed industry watchdog based in Marin County, California, is a remarkably extreme anti-alcohol group that has funding from several charitable trusts. Originally known as the Marin Institute and created to address general health issues in that area, it morphed into an ardent foe of the alcohol industry and abandoned its original mandate. If you browse their website, you will find a few consistent themes, mostly all centered around the premise that “Big Alcohol” (there’s that phrase again) likes to market their product to kids. They tweet quite a bit too, and ones like this aren’t uncommon:

@AlcoholJustice Big Alcohol will never admit #2 Our TV sports ads contribute to underage drinker brain damage

The reality is that they are a bunch of zealot extremists, but Dr. Strang and many of the other local anti-alcohol activists re-tweet their bile from time to time, so they must believe they are credible. Sad, really. This link will tell you more about their positions and activities:

Because of where they’re based, many U.S.-based lobby groups face far-different issues than we do in Canada. They do not have the nationwide provincial liquor board legislation and control system that we do, nor do they have the level of public revenue generation from alcohol sales that we require. Nevertheless, the solutions they propose for the U.S. market have been embraced by our local anti-alcohol activists even though in many instances we have had those same measures in place for decades. Trying to explain that they are proposing solutions for problems that do not exist in our environment has not been easy. God knows I’ve tried.

Because the majority of U.S. states are not “control states”, and have a private-sector retail liquor system, the role of municipalities is much greater there than here when it comes to managing liquor sales. In the case of HRM, much of what has been proposed for inclusion in a Municipal Alcohol Policy is already regulated either federally or provincially. But the anti-alcohol advocates want to go farther, seemingly because they think along the lines of Alcohol Justice that the industry is surreptitiously trying to corrupt our kids and you cannot allow any advertising of these products anywhere someone not of legal drinking age might see it.

This gets to the core issue: what is the problem HRM is attempting to solve with such a policy? Nobody really seems to know for sure. Is it getting a handle on what goes on in the bar district downtown? Is it about signage and advertising controls? Is it about zoning and hours of operation? Is it an assortment of health objectives? Is it about event sponsorship? Is it about alcohol use in HRM facilities? My impression is that the answer to those questions depends on who you are talking to. There seems to be no well-considered definition of the problem. And that is dangerous when you’re making policy.

When this subject was at Council the last time, a contingent from Capital Health was in the audience, and somehow the impressive Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, CDHA’s Chief of Public Health, was asked to speak. I’m not quite sure how that worked in terms of procedure, but so be it. I have met Gaynor a few times and find her to be that rare combination of both a very pleasant and warm personality and a very smart person. So it perhaps isn’t surprising that when she turned on the charm, she got Council’s attention as she recommended a number of additions to the draft document they were considering. For example, she recommended the policy not allow alcohol companies (the definitional reach of which is yet to be defined) to be permitted to sponsor free bus services to let people get home safely from an event. While this seems counter-intuitive, the thinking presumably was that this service would encourage them to drink, or drink to excess. Uh-huh, OK, sure. She also recommended a widespread ban on alcohol advertising at HRM properties, and even left some in the audience with the belief that she had a study proving a causal link between alcohol advertising and youth drinking, something she later had to clarify as not the case via a Tweet. That is something I doubt any credible study will ever find to be true, as there are just too many variables that go into such a result. In part it gets into the correlation versus causation question, which is far too lengthy to discuss here. I believe she even threw in the ever-popular age of first drink not-a-stat of 12.9 years (actually it’s 16) that I mentioned in my previous post just for good measure as part of her argument about alcohol advertising and kids.

The whole advertising question is a very sensitive one, as it infringes on federal and provincial jurisdictions, and has an economic impact on a broad spectrum of businesses, from the manufacturers themselves to many others in the signage and advertising field, not to mention such minor issues as freedom of expression. Some of the local anti-alcohol activists have been making a fuss about this of late, criticizing the NSLC last year for a fairly innocuous billboard campaign promoting cocktail mixology, and also being critical of some Molson cider ads that appeared on bus shelters, suggesting they were aimed at kids by making it look like apple juice (no, I’m not making this stuff up). That was tagged by @HRM_Alcohol on Twitter as such, and it caused a bit of a stir late last summer.

The @HRM_Alcohol twitter account, which seems to be run by CDHA’s Dan Steeves, possibly in conjunction with some other individuals, is nothing if not entertaining. It has been incessantly harassing HRM Council and the Mayor to get on with this policy consultation, to the point where if I was a Councillor, I might be moved to dump the whole thing. It has also been beating the drum, pleading with them not to allow alcohol sponsorship of the Metro Center naming rights. If the rights are worth the half-million a year that HRM seems to think they are, frankly I don’t care who wants to pay us that much money – it’s just a name. I don’t think we are so pure or so rich that we could pass on such an offer by Molson-Coors or Labatt. But frankly, I doubt they will offer anything in that range, if they even bother to bid, given the rough ride Labatt was given with their sponsorship experience, and the fuss made when Molson-Coors wanted to help defray the costs of the skating oval. Instead, we took money from that most popular of companies, Emera.

As for the consultation on the Municipal Alcohol Policy, if it happens, it needs to go far beyond the public health interests. Halifax has a huge number of restaurant and bar owners, an exploding microbrewery scene, and the biggest commercial brewer in the Maritimes within its expansive boundaries. The problems faced on a Saturday night on Argyle Street are far different than those faced by the Legion in Gaetz Brook. And if a microbrewer wants to set up a manufacturing facility and hang a sign somewhere within sight of a school, are you really willing to send that business somewhere else for the sake of the children, in the absence of any credible information that it causes harm? The public health interests have largely dominated this discussion until now, and that is a mistake. They have become a lobby group no different from any other lobby group, using studies and information that serves their purpose and not particularly caring whether or not it is accurate or representative of the true picture. HRM needs to get the whole picture before putting in a policy that could cause significant harm. Maybe they should just shut the whole thing down right now and move on.

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