Less Liquor?

Last month, Fort Saskatchewan City Councillor Arjun Randhawa proposed new liquor store density regulations. He proposed that new liquor stores be placed more than 750 metres from existing stores. The proposal was withdrawn following debate and heated public comment.

We talk to Lana Wells, Associate Professor and the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence at the Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, regarding this topic.

Regulations for liquor outlets have been studied in depth by Lana Wells, Associate Professor and the Brenda Strafford Chair in the Prevention of Domestic Violence at the Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary. The Bite interviewed her to see how restricting liquor store density can impact domestic violence rates in communities like Fort Saskatchewan.

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Q: Can you tell our readers a bit about the type of research you do?

LW: In 2010, I created Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence located in the Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary. Our goal is to significantly reduce domestic violence using a primary prevention approach to stop first-time victimization and perpetration. In short, our research is focused on trying to understand how we can take collective action to build resilience and prevent violence before it occurs.

Since 2011, we have been examining the relationship between alcohol use and domestic violence, and exploring whether policy changes—in particular the regulation of liquor store density—can be effective in preventing and reducing domestic violence. In 2013, my team produced a paper that focused on the rationale for implementing liquor outlet density controls in Alberta and, in 2016, we have published a book chapter with examples of how diverse governments have incorporated alcohol policies and strategies into their domestic violence prevention plans and reviewed specific examples of alcohol outlet density control measures from different countries.

Q: In your research, have you seen connections between alcohol use and domestic violence?

LW: Research clearly shows that alcohol use is both a risk factor for and an outcome of domestic violence, and is often present before, during, and after domestic violence incidents. Since Alberta is the only province in Canada that has completely privatized retail alcohol sales and the number of liquor outlets continue to grow dramatically, we have been exploring the connection between the availability of alcohol, specifically alcohol outlet density, and domestic violence.

Through our literature reviews, we found that a growing body of evidence links high alcohol outlet density to both domestic violence and child maltreatment, as well as to other health issues, mortality, crime, suicide and homicide. In fact, alcohol outlet density is one of the strongest—and, in some cases the single greatest predictor of violent crime in several U.S. jurisdictions.

Q: Are these sorts of connections something you see in your work with communities in Alberta?

LW: Yes, many communities that we work with in Alberta recognize the connection between the availability of alcohol and violent behaviours but only a small number of them have been trying to act on it or able to achieve some changes. Some regulations do exist. For example, in Calgary and Edmonton there are bylaws that require a minimum distance of 300 and 500 metres respectively between alcohol outlets.

We understand that the proximity between alcohol outlets may not be the right solution for all communities but it does not mean there is no solution.

What is clear to us – is that we do have an issue in Alberta with a dramatically growing number of alcohol outlets and municipalities have the power to control outlet density within their communities. For this social issue, it really is up to municipalities to play a key role.

Consequently, last year, I presented at the FCSSAA Annual Conference and encouraged local politicians to put forward a resolution to the AUMA for all cities to put a moratorium on any new liquor outlets in Alberta until further research was done at each municipal level because you can’t go back – once they are there, in your community – you can’t shut them down.

Interestingly, the AGLC website reinforces that idea saying that, “AGLC does not regulate the number of liquor stores, the proximity between such stores, or matters involving increased retail competition in a municipality.”

Such matters of community image, safety, and property value fall within the jurisdiction of municipalities. These considerations are the responsibility of a municipality during its review of any application for a development permit or business license.”

Many cities throughout North America are working to reduce access to alcohol by implementing regulations to control the density of liquor outlets as an effective way to reduce alcohol-related harm—including domestic and sexual violence.

It is an issue that must be addressed with some urgency as density is very difficult to address retroactively. The density of alcohol outlets in Alberta has grown steadily since privatization and not enough has been done to manage this growth.

A small window of opportunity exists NOW to prevent the clustering of alcohol outlets in many communities in Alberta and municipal governments need to act quickly.

Q: You have said that communities should do things to reduce the number of places where people can buy liquor, because liquor consumption is linked to domestic violence. Have communities responded to that call?

LW: Many communities have recognized the issue and used information from our report to make decisions or move into action (Edmonton). Some analyzed the number and density of alcohol outlets in their communities (Grande Prairie) while others advocated against opening new liquor outlets in their area.

Many communities that proposed regulatory bylaws were rejected by municipalities despite sufficient rationale supporting connection between density of alcohol outlets and its negative impact (i.e., Spruce Grove).

When we realized the significance of the issue and clear lack of action in Alberta, we decided to look for examples from other Canadian provinces and across the globe.

Our book chapter that was published in 2016 provides more details but, in summary, many governments recognized alcohol outlet density as an issue and have tried to implement a variety of alcohol density policies and controls in different contexts (i.e., at different levels of governments and with different alcohol retailing systems).

Very few were able to prevent the crisis because most recognize the issue only after the tipping point has already been reached. In my opinion, Alberta is fast approaching that edge, but there is still chance for prevention if we use existing knowledge and promising practices from other countries.

Unfortunately, some communities already passed the tipping point and immediate actions are required to stop the growth of alcohol outlets and addressing negative consequences of high density on communities.

Q: It’s probably obvious that zoning of liquor stores on its own will not solve the domestic violence problems in our communities. That is, it needs to be a part of other efforts by local government, social services agencies, police, etc. But, do you think that cities that have not created zoning laws to address alcohol outlet densities should still do so?

LW: YES! I think all the communities in Alberta should place a moratorium on any new liquor outlet until local policies are designed that will prevent a proliferation and clustering of outlets. We understand that at the local level, land use bylaws are the main driver when it comes to impacting outlet density and addressing the issue of alcohol availability and accessibility.

In Alberta, municipalities have an authority to limit the number and location of alcohol outlets and need to use it. Municipalities should strengthen zoning regulations to address density of both off-premise and on-premise alcohol outlets by using strategies like:

– Minimum distances between outlets, specifically in residential areas, and in ‘sensitive’ areas such as schools, health care facilities, parks and/or playgrounds, places of worship, etc.;

– Population- and geographic-based formulas to restrict the number and location of alcohol outlet licenses;

– Moratoriums on new licenses in certain communities with high density of alcohol outlets; – When required, revoking, relocating or consolidating licenses;

– Creating cumulative impact zones that take into consideration adverse social effects of alcohol market saturation;

– Encouraging community participation in the license review process.

Many jurisdictions throughout North America (and the world) have recognized the negative impact of high density alcohol outlets and are working to reduce access to alcohol by implementing one or all of the above density control measures.

Since 2012, Shift has had an annual process to identify and monitor national and provincial/state government endorsed prevention of domestic violence plans in the global North and has created and maintained a repository of these documents. Within the 37 government-endorsed domestic violence prevention plans that we have reviewed in 2015, 23 countries/states clearly made the link between alcohol and domestic violence but only three plans (including one from Canada – Newfoundland provincial prevention plan) incorporated specific strategies for reducing alcohol consumption.

Our research showed that Governments in Canada, New Zealand, the United States, England and Wales are experimenting with different types of local alcohol policy interventions to regulate the physical availability of alcohol, specifically through limiting alcohol outlet density.

Q: Is that more important in cities still experiencing high growth rates, despite the economic downturn in Alberta? Or in places where local police agencies are saying that addressing domestic violence is a particular priority?

LW: It is relevant and important in any community in Alberta due to the fast growth of alcohol outlets and their clustering. If the density is still low in a community, restrictions will ensure that we are preventing these communities from reaching a tipping point. For communities where the density is already high, we will be dealing with a crisis and it will require much more effort (time and money) to at least prevent issues from escalating.

Despite progress in some jurisdictions, research suggests that there is no easy way to reduce alcohol outlet density once it is established. Therefore, it would be prudent to introduce density controls before issues begin to escalate.

Q: What about arguments that “people will just buy liquor anyway,” for example by just going to the nearest liquor store, even if it’s a few minutes further away?

LW: I think this question is really about asking ourselves – what kind of communities do we want to live in? How many liquor stores are enough? In 2013 we conducted research to identify where all the liquor outlet stores were located in Calgary – and guess what? They were disproportionately located and clustered in communities with lower socio-economic status. So, I think this is really about shaping and creating the communities we want to live in and developing policies that support healthy communities.

Q: Would other policy proposals, like a province-wide moratorium on new liquor stores, help address domestic violence?

There is no doubt that simply controlling liquor outlet density will not eradicate domestic violence. The root causes of domestic violence are much more complex and require a full-scale revamping of public policy and interventions, but also individual norms and belief systems.

However, density controls are a promising solution that can be implemented to reduce a range of social harms, including domestic violence, at the community level. Community mobilization and municipal regulations that limit alcohol outlets, especially in high-density areas, can send a strong message about the kind of neighborhoods and society we want for ourselves and our families.

In the Alberta context, local municipalities are best suited for introducing moratoriums in their communities because inner-city districts, communities or even city blocks may have unique needs and different interventions. For example, in 2013, we conducted an exploratory analysis of outlet density in Calgary by postal code and found that some communities had one liquor outlet to serve over 27 thousand residents while other communities had 22 liquor outlets to serve about 25 thousand residents reaching the ratio of four outlets per 1,000 residents.

As a result, local authorities are best situated to decide in which communities they already reached a tipping point and require a moratorium or even more serious measures, such as relocation and/ or consolidation to avoid clustering. Unfortunately, practical examples show that it is extremely hard to address density retroactively and moratoriums are often used when a tipping point has already been reached.

In many communities in Alberta, we have already reached this tipping point so it is time to for all local authorities to act.

At a provincial level, it would be very helpful if the provincial government introduced population and/ or geographic based restrictions on the number of licenses so that communities where there is still room for adding new establishments would be prevented from reaching a tipping point.

We refer to it as preventing the issue before it happens. If we can balance alcohol availability and reduce alcohol misuse, we can reduce the risk of many negative harms to Albertans including domestic violence.

In some locations, the concentration of liquor outlets might be already so high that in addition to moratoriums, municipalities should consider relocation and/ or consolidation to avoid clustering. //

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