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Convenience stores face off against The Beer Store in potential change to liquor laws

Update: An organization called Ontario Beer Facts came out Tuesday with a new ad (above) depicting underaged kids buying alcohol at a convenience store, suggesting that if liquor laws change, it will be easier for youth to buy booze. (The ad voiceover does say putting booze in convenience stores, “it’s just not right for our kids.”)

Ontario Beer Facts describes itself as “providing Ontarians with important facts on the consequences of selling beer, wine and hard liquor at corner stores and gas stations.”

It’s website, ontariobeerfacts.ca, wasn’t working as of publication time on Wednesday.

A couple of weeks ago The Beer Store released an add to voice their opinion on an ongoing issue in Ontario’s liquor industry, fuelling the flames of a debate that has raged since the late 80s, when Liberal premier David Peterson made changing Ontario’s alcohol market a key component of his election platform.

Though his promise never came to fruition, Peterson was among the first Ontario premiers to suggest an end to the Beer Store monopoly, by allowing for the sale of beer and wine at convenience and grocery stores throughout the province.

Stirring the debate more recently, the Ontario Liberals announced plans to allow sale of beer, liquor and wine in some major grocery store chains — but not convenience stores or smaller grocers. Still, that crack in the laws drew a response from The Beer Store.

The Beer Store’s 30-second television spot features store manager and world curling champion Glenn Howard dressed in his Beer Store uniform, looking directly at the camera and saying, “I think we all have a responsibility to look out for Ontario’s kids and to protect our communities. At The Beer Store, it’s a commitment we take to heart.”

The implication that the sale of alcohol by convenience store owners would impede on the protection of Ontario’s children and communities didn’t sit well with Dave Bryans, CEO of the Ontario Convenience Store Association.

“Let’s put it this way, I’m disappointed,” he says. “We take age testing as seriously, if not more seriously, than the Beer Stores, and we have more to lose if we do make a mistake selling to minors.”

Bryans explains that while the Beer Store is self-regulated, the alcohol and gaming commission as well as Smoke Free Ontario already regulates 9,500 convenience stores in the province for the sale of tobacco and lotto products. Unlike The Beer Store, convenience store owners are at constant risk of losing their right to sell age restricted products — a cornerstone of their often family-run small businesses — should they fail one of their age-tests by the AGCO, administered at random a minimum of four-times annually.

“There’s more on the line for us,” says Rami Reda, owner of Big Bee convenience stores, which was founded in Hamilton by his father Mohamad Reda in 1994. Today, Big Bee has 50 stores throughout Ontario, including two locations in Toronto. “We’ve grown up our entire lives selling restricted products, so we know how important it is that minors don’t get access to anything that we sell that they shouldn’t. Beer and wine is just a natural transition for us.”

To further refute the claims of the Beer Store’s new ad, both Reda and Bryans point to a 2010 study conducted by Statopex Field Marketing on behalf of the OCSA, which sent underage patrons to buy restricted products at LCBO, Beer Store, and convenient store locations across the province.

For patrons aged 15 to 18, the LCBO carded 74.6 per cent, the Beer Store checked 80.7 per cent of IDs, and members of the OCSA passed the test 87.3 per cent of the time. There’s an even greater gap when mystery shoppers were aged 19 to 24, who still legally must be carded, with the LCBO passing 40.5 per cent of the time, the Beer Store 65.9 per cent of the time and OCSA members passing 73.3 per cent of the time.

“Hats off to them for running commercials saying they’re good (at checking identification),” says Bryans, “but I’m disappointed that they would actually think they’re better at it than convenient stores.”

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