Wednesday, June 6, 2012

CAMRA Vancouver Making a FUSS in the Legislature

Disclaimer: For those who do not know, the writer of this blog is also the president of CAMRA Vancouver

CAMRA Vancouver may have finally arrived on the political scene last week when their FUSS Campaign was raised in the BC Legislature by NDP MLA Shane Simpson.

Mr Simpson, during debate in the legislature, asked Liberal MLA and Minister of Energy and Mines, Rich Coleman, who also oversees the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch and the Liquor Distribution Board, why the LCLB was not enforcing their law requiring licensees to provide serving size-price lists to patrons, citing that it is in the interests of public safety and consumer protection that this law be properly enforced.

Although CAMRA Vancouver, or the FUSS Campaign, were not mentioned by name, this issue was raised as a direct result of a meeting held a few months ago between myself, CAMRA Vancouver VP, Dieter Friesen and Mr Simpson who is the NDP critic for all things alcohol in BC. During the meeting, Mr Simpson stated he saw value in the FUSS Campaign, what it stood for, and stated he would support the initiative, a promise he has followed through with by writing a letter to Mr Coleman, asking for governmental support of the FUSS Campaign and then by raising the issue in the BC Legislature.

In his comments to Mr Coleman, Mr Simpson pointed out that there are no standardized measures in BC for draft beer and without serving size lists, customers often have no idea what they are paying for.

"We know glasses can be of mighty different sizes," stated Simpson in the legislative debate. "People should know if it's a real pint, or is it 12 ounces, or what is it?"

Simpson then went on to state that licensees should not only have serving size lists available, but that they should be posted for people to see, stating there is "the need for the establishment to display a sign that says, 'When you get a mug of beer here, this is the size that you're buying,' and you'll know and you'll (the customer) pay accordingly."

Public safety was also raised as an issue, with Mr Simpson pointing out that many of the craft beers on the market are much higher in alcohol content compared to the traditional, massed-produced lagers, which could lead to accidental intoxication if a customer does not know exactly how much he is consuming.

"There's a difference here, if you're having a couple of these (higher alcohol beers) versus a couple of Coors Lights, in terms of making a decision about your conduct, particularly if you're going to go out and get in a car," stated Simpson. "Is there any thinking about enforcing that more rigorously or encouraging that enforcement through your inspectors?"

Mr Coleman was frank in his response, stating he was aware of the serving size issues, but the the LCLB was focusing their resources on four major enforcement issues, those being service to minors, overcrowding of licensed establishments, sale of illegal liquor and over-serving. Coleman did not acknowledge that Mr Simpson did link serving sizes to possible over-serving, even if that over-serving may be accidental.

"Those are the four priorities," stated Coleman. "They (licensees) are required to do the serving sizes and post the price list, and we will continue to remind them through the newsletter. The odd time we might get a complaint that we would actually spend some time on, but for the most part that's the expectation."

So although the LCLB is aware that this law is being flaunted, it will not act unless they are forced to by getting specific complaints against specific licensees. The LCLB are bound by policy to investigate all complaints. So in their mind, the LCLB will not prioritize this issue unless complaints for the public begin to roll in.

I guess not all laws are meant to be enforced equally, even though "it is a law, we have no choice" is the party line of the LCLB when they are enforcing ridiculous laws like no dancing in liquor primary establishments and they are questioned as to why they are cracking down on something so harmless.

At this point in time, CAMRA Vancouver has not made any specific complaints against particular licensees, although I have personally been tempted more than a few times when I have seen a sign or menu advertising a "pint" and then the server brings over a sleeve and brushes off my complaints that they did not deliver on  what they promised. If you find yourself in this situation and are unhappy with the response or explanation you get, you now know how to prompt the LCLB inspectors into action.

CAMRA Vancouver received confirmation this week that the LCLB is following through via their newsletter "Liquor Line" which goes to all licensees and LCLB employees in the province. LCLB General Manager, Karen Ayers, via email, advised me, "the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch has included a reminder to licensees and to our staff," stating, "the newsletter is the most effective and cost efficient method we have of communicating to licensees."

A mention in a newsletter does not seem like a huge result for CAMRA Vancouver, but I would argue differently. I do not think CAMRA Vancouver has ever been able to get political support at the level of the Provincial Legislature, or has been successful in grabbing the attention LCLB and prompt them to any sort of action. It is not much, but it is a start and the FUSS Campaign has definitely made both politicians and the LCLB aware that CAMRA is out there advocating on behalf of the craft beer consumers of BC.

CAMRA Vancouver needs to take a pause to see if there are any changes as a result of the newsletter reminders and if not, will decide how to take this issue to the next level. I know there are some out there that think we are missing the mark with this campaign and who believe it is a waste of energy, but those few are in the minority and are usually not looking at the issue from a consumer's point of view.

As long as I am president of CAMRA Vancouver, I will continue to raise this issue until we get compliance and enforcement. I am not one for pushing for the LCLB to be heavy-handed with their enforcement unless the law being enforced makes sense.

Knowing what you are being served and what you are paying for, stamping out misrepresentation of serving sizes/short pouring and promoting responsible drinking/public safety do make sense to me and at its core, that is what FUSS is all about.

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