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B.C. eyes looser liquor penalties for bars, stores

The government
The government's latest step in liquor policy reform is to contemplate altered penalties for bars and stores that run afoul of the regulations.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

The province is contemplating changing how it punishes pubs, restaurants and liquor stores that violate liquor rules that ban over-serving and selling to minors.

Business owners have asked government for a more flexible penalty system and a month-long online consultation running to Sept. 30 asks stakeholders for input on the options.

One possibility to be explored is lower or higher penalties.

According to a government discussion paper released Friday, B.C. penalties are stiffer than most other provinces.

"Decreasing penalties would bring British Columbia in closer alignment with the average among the provinces," it says, noting government must balance business hardship and the need for deterrence for public safety.

A first offence for a B.C. liquor establishment typically means a one- to three-day suspension for overcrowding and 10 days or a $7,500 fine for selling to a minor (the first-offence maximum is $10,000 and 15 days for serving minors.)

Alberta bars have a choice of paying a fine or serving a suspension – which is one of the ideas up for consideration – and most operators there choose the fine, which is typically $500 to $1,500 on a public safety first offence.

The stiffest penalties are in Ontario, where suspensions of 21 days and longer are  are common.

Another issue is perceived unfairness of the current system for different business types.

Food-primary outlets can keep on serving food during a suspension, while liquor-primary bars and retail stores must close entirely.

That raises the question of whether fines are a better option, the paper says.

It adds the penalties must spur liquor violators to voluntary compliance and not be so low they're merely treated as a cost of doing business.

Fines or suspensions get more onerous with repeat offences, potentially leading to licence cancellations.

But a second offence is only counted as such if it happens within 12 months of the first one – after a year the slate is clean.

One option is to increase that period to two or three years, which would put more pressure on repeat offenders whose subsequent penalties would be more severe.

Another question asks if repeat offences should be fines rather than suspensions.

The consultation is in response to recommendations flowing from the liquor policy review headed by BC Liberal MLA John Yap.

"We have been asking for review of the penalty schedule for a while," said Jeff Guignard, executive director of the Alliance of Beverage Licensees, which represents a broad spectrum of bars, stores and other liquor sellers.

He said a $7,000 fine for failing to check an ID could be a month of profit for a mom-and-pop rural liquor store in northern B.C., but negligible to a big Vancouver bar.

Guignard also favours some mechanism to reward an outlet's good compliance over past years, perhaps akin to how motorists with a long crash-free record build up safe driving discounts with ICBC.

There were 13,415 inspections of liquor licensees last year, resulting in just under 400 contravention notices or nearly three per cent of inspections. But of those, less than half (171) led to enforcement action being taken.

The most common violation in recent years has been supplying liquor to minors, followed by permitting an intoxicated person to remain on the premises.

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