A leading local researcher of alcohol use and policy cheers Central Saanich’s decision to hold back on allowing alcohol in public parks, while warning of other issues ahead.
The sponsor of the motion, Coun. Chris Graham, meanwhile was not surprised that it failed, pointing to what he called “cultural issues” among other points.
“The vote against that motion is a win for public health,” said Adam Sherk, a research fellow at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, University of Victoria, who holds a PhD in alcohol epidemiology and public health. He has authored or co-authored multiple publications on the subject of alcohol, having served as a lead author of the Canadian Substance Use Harms and Costs project.
Sherk made that comment in an interview with the Peninsula News Review after all members of council, except Graham, voted against a July 13 motion that would have temporarily allowed the consumption of alcohol within municipal parks between noon and 6 p.m.
Graham said alcohol use in public park is already happening when asked to make the case for his motion. “When you see people doing something already, it’s better to have it in a legal framework, especially if it is not necessarily going to be causing a lot of problem.”
Graham also argued that the motion would have encouraged people to spend more time outdoors locally rather than travelling to the Lower Mainland or the Okanagan.
“I think travel plays a significant role in the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “I also believe that people being outside is safer than being inside. Already, we are in a situation where people are going to restaurants and they are doing take-aways of alcohol at the same time. They are going somewhere with that. I think it’s better if we are a little bit more honest about it. Obviously, that is not how the rest of council thought.”
Sherk said the plan and the push against it appears against the broader liberalization of alcohol policies.
“Drinking in parks is a fairly modest step, but it would have increased in particular the normalization of alcohol, which is already the most favoured and psychoactive drug.”
Sherk is also among the authors of 11 letters to council, of which only one favoured the proposal. Policies that increase the normalization of alcohol use, such as drinking in public parks, have long been shown to increase drinking and alcohol-caused harms, he said in his letter where he described alcohol as the “most harmful substance in Canada” because of its “myriad physical harms” to both drinkers (including cancer) and others through violence, collisions and trauma.
“Alcohol causes more than 15,000 deaths each year in Canada, more than three times as many as opioids,” he said.
While not readily comparable, that figure represents just under twice the number of people, who have died from COVID-19, said Sherk. “And alcohol does that every single year,” he said.
Ultimately, Sherk said that the current moment represents a “critical time for alcohol and substance abuse policy in Canada, even globally.
“COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities in our society and that has been particularly unfair to substance users, which of course, includes the substance of alcohol,” he said, adding that in April, then into May and June, British Columbia recorded the highest ever number of opioid deaths.
When asked about Sherk’s argument that alcohol in parks will lead to more alcohol consumption and harms associated, Graham disagreed.
“I just don’t think that is borne out in any research or facts,” he said. “I think it’s about cultural maturity and I’d like to see our culture moving towards being more mature. I don’t think it’s about promoting the consumption of alcohol at all.”
Later, he also pointed out that his motion would have only temporarily relaxed rules. “It wasn’t a suggestion that we just simply rule this out and go with it. The idea was to open this up for a short period of time and then we have an opportunity to reflect and see if it created these issues that are people are concerned about or not.”
Sherk points out that Canadians have been consuming more alcohol and calls on government to ensure temporary measures increasing access to alcohol – such as alcohol take-out from restaurants and extended service hours – remain temporary.
“Rolling them back now that they are in place is typically difficult,” he said. “Globally, the alcohol industry has done a massive push during COVID-19 to relax alcohol policies in many countries globally. Powerful lobbies often do this during crisis and this what the alcohol industry has done.”
Looking more locally, Central Saanich council will review event licences and the expedited permitting process for liquor and food trucks in the fall during strategic planning. But this move also suggests the municipality may yet end up taking steps to liberalize alcohol access.
For now, those measures appear to enjoy little political support from council, including the co-sponsor of the motion as Coun. Niall Paltiel voted against it. Paltiel pointed to a number of factors, including public feedback; input from public health officials, timing around staff time and resources while still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic; and regional consistency, pointing to Saanich’s decision to quaff a comparable motion, albeit more narrowly.
“It’s our job to keep an open mind but not an empty one,” he said.
Like us on Facebook and follow @wolfgang_depner