Saskatchewan has a complicated relationship with alcohol.
It’s fun for many, but liquor can also be deadly.
Among all the provinces in Canada, Saskatchewan has the highest rate of impaired driving. The latest analysis by Statistics Canada from 2011 shows Sask. had a rate of 683 impaired-driving incidents for every 100,000 people in the province. The second place province, Alberta, had a rate of 450 for every 100,000.
More recent stats from SGI in 2014 show 59 people killed in collisions involving alcohol while another 536 were injured. There were 1,133 collisions.
The numbers have improved since 2008, when 1,704 collisions involving alcohol killed 79 and injured 1,002. SGI associates the fall with more stringent penalties for drivers, including roadside suspensions, that were put in place by the provincial government in 2014.
But a poll done in late August still shows a pervasive problem with how Saskatchewanians perceive drinking and driving. When asked if it was “OK” to drive under the influence if it’s a short distance, 19 per cent of respondents said yes. The sentiment was strongest in rural areas, where 22 per cent said it would be “OK.”
Now with the province moving to privatize 40 SLGA stores, extend operating hours for retail locations and allow 11 more private locations to open their doors, the question has to be asked:
How will the further privatization of the liquor industry, moving full speed ahead, affect the drinking and driving rate in Saskatchewan?
A clue may lie in observations made during the privatization process in British Columbia.
The province decided to allow private stores to open their doors in 2003. By 2008, the number of stores had sky-rocketed, with 1,176 retail locations operating in the province.
“We found quite a strong relationship between increasing numbers of outlets, numbers of deaths and also rates of alcohol-related hospital admission,” said Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of BC (CARBC).
Stockwell, along with several other researchers, collected data for five years from 2003 to 2008 to discover how B.C. was affected by liquor privatization.
The 30-year academic veteran said the first correlation was the consumption of alcohol increased significantly. In 2003 British Columbians consumed 27.6 million litres of beer and liquor. By 2008, that number had grown to 32.6 million litres, over a litre per person.
“Studies all over the world show when consumption increases, so does the rate of harm,” he said. “It’s just a harsh reality modern society has to face.”
His paper, published in several international journals, concluded that for every 20 per cent increase in private store density, the alcohol-related death rate increased 3.25 per cent. The authors also found harm rates were higher in areas with private stores versus those with government-operated locations.
In Saskatchewan, the new round of privatization will leave the government with only 35 SLGA locations. There are 188 small businesses which essentially operate as SLGA outlets, while there are only four fully privatized retail locations.
Adding 51 new private stores would represent a 1,275 per cent increase in density. Using Stockwell’s math, this could result in a 207 per cent increase in the number of alcohol-related deaths in Saskatchewan.
Applied to drinking and driving mortalities in the province, this could lead to 122 more deaths on Saskatchewan’s roads.
While his stats incorporate all forms of alcohol mortality, including liver disease, Stockwell admits this “won’t help” the drinking and driving rate.
PROFIT BEFORE SAFETY
So why is it that privatization can have such a detrimental effect on mortality?
Cheryl Dupuis has a theory.
“Ultimately it’s about making money,” she said.
Her life was changed forever on Oct. 1, 2000 when her 16-year-old daughter was fatally injured in a drunk driving crash in Saskatoon. Danae Dupuis had been at a pool hall where her boyfriend was being served alcohol as a minor. He got behind the wheel with Dupuis in the passenger seat, and collided with a pick up truck.
Danae was declared brain dead on Oct. 3. Her boyfriend had blown over twice the legal limit, and was sentenced to 15 months, which was served in the community.
Now Cheryl Dupuis tours across North America to tell her daughter’s story and to educate teenagers about the dangers of impaired driving. She spoke to 650 CKOM over the phone while on a tour in California.
She worries the emphasis on profit will lead to private sellers not being as vigilant when it comes to selling liquor to minors.
“If [alcohol] isn’t in the hands of people who take these things seriously, I’m not sure how we can patrol it,” she said.
MADD CEO Andrew Murie echoed Dupuis’ concerns, saying young drivers represent 33 per cent of drunk driving fatalities despite only being 13 per cent of the population.
“The easier it is for them to access alcohol, the more likely they are to drink and drive,” Murie said.
MADD had presented to the government during discussions over privatization to encourage them to maintain the “status quo” of SLGA operations. Part of that presentation involved Stockwell’s research and other papers demonstrating the dangers of releasing control of alcohol sales.
“The best system is a government crown corporation,” he told 650 CKOM. “Because the focus is on social responsibility and safety.”
While the government still chose to go the privatization route, Murie said he’s optimistic when it comes to bringing down drinking and driving rates.
MADD had a series of meetings this week with both SGI Minister Joe Hargrave and Justice Minister Gordon Wyant on how to bring the rate down.
“I think they’re going to be doing some innovative things,” Murie said. “It’s really going to reshape the culture. And those things when it comes to drinking and driving are crucial.”
B.C. LESSONS LEARNED
Like Stockwell, Murie cited British Columbia’s experience when discussing options with the Saskatchewan government.
But Murie likes what he sees in B.C.
After Stockwell’s study was completed in 2008, Murie said attention was turned towards private stores and their sales to minors.
“They were terrible,” he said.
But the government started a new program where they brought in undercover minor agents, and began fining businesses $5,000.
“The cost of doing business with minors became so atrocious they stopped doing it,” he said. “But they were forced into it, it didn’t come naturally.”
Stockwell also noted B.C. has improved immensely when it comes to drinking and driving.
The legal limit is now 0.049 mg/100 mL of blood and drivers who blow between 0.05 and 0.079 face immediate consequences.
First time offenders are subject to an instant three-day seizure of their vehicle and driver’s licence. They are also on the hook for towing, impound, storage and administrative fees related to the seizures.
If you’re caught a second time, the forfeiture is for a period of seven days and drivers can be mandated to take a “responsible driver program.” A third incident last 30 days and includes a referral to the ignition interlock system.
Drivers who exceed 0.08 mg/100 mL face a 90 day suspension and referral to both the responsible driver program and ignition interlock system, in addition to possible criminal code charges.
As a result, B.C.’s drinking and driving rate has plummeted from 415.35 per 100,000 people in 2011 to 274 per 100,000 in 2014.
“You can have as high or harsh a penalty you like, and it won’t work if you don’t have people getting an immediate penalty,” Stockwell said.
The researcher added one of Saskatchewan’s strongest deterence strategies lies in the province’s social reference pricing for alcohol.
He analyzed the strategy, which sets minimum prices for sales, in a 2012 paper. His team found a 10 per cent increase in the minimum price significantly reduced consumption, “reducing the public health burden associated with hazardous alcohol consumption.”
SLGA Minister Jeremy Harrison told 650 CKOM while the government is moving out of the sales market, social reference pricing is here to stay, but prices will still be lower.
“There will be some flexibility for retailers… over and above the social reference price,” he said. “They’re going to have that decision to make as business owners.”
He emphasized the government takes drinking and driving “very seriously” and they’re looking at additional enforcement options in partnership with MADD.
But he says it comes down to a personal choice.
“Folks who seek access to alcohol are going to find it.”