Sunday, December 14, 2014

Emails Obtained in FOI Show BC Attorney General Warned by Independent Bar Owners “Happy Hour” Would Hike Booze Prices, Reduce Competition

Happy Hour in Paris - seems much better!
- Bill Tieleman photo
Liquor law changes force some bars to hike prices, emails to province reveal.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver/ The Tyee column

Tuesday December 9, 2014

By Bill Tieleman

"This is very dangerous -- $2 drinks? There is no way one can possibly staff for those prices in a responsible way. Seems crazy..."
- Joey Gibbons, The Gibbons Hospitality Group, Whistler, June 25, 2014
The B.C. government was strongly warned in advance by several bar owners that its proposed happy hour would actually increase prices, reduce competition and promote overconsumption, according to correspondence obtained by The Tyee through a Freedom Of Information request.
But BC Liberal attorney general Suzanne Anton ignored critics and last June introduced happy hour liquor law changes that she claimed would allow bar owners to serve drinks at reduced prices during less busy parts of the day to encourage patrons.
Instead, the rule change had the effect of increasing prices for a pint of beer by $2 or more and a pitcher of beer by $5. 
How is that possible?
Previously, there were no minimum prices on how much a bar owner could charge for a drink. A bar could charge $10 for a pitcher of beer, for example, to draw customers. But the new rules mean bar owners must now charge minimum prices for all categories of bar drinks. That $10 pitcher of beer is now $15 at least.

After happy hour was implemented last June, Anton received many complaints from consumers that drink prices had gone up, not down.
The 141-page FOI document clearly shows that despite an extensive liquor review process, the government disregarded B.C. bar owners' serious concerns first raised by The Tyee, namely that large bar chains would squeeze out smaller operations.
Their worry was that happy hour rule changes would force many independent bars to increase the cost of lower-priced drinks -- such as beer and wine -- which had helped them compete with larger chains.
Corina Aquino, owner of Mooses Down Under Bar and Grill in downtown Vancouver, responded to a ministry request for input on Feb. 24, 2014 and spelled out her fears.
"As owner of a small family-owned business I am not too happy about happy hour as I feel that with the competition I can be out-priced by the larger chains," Aquino said by email.
"How will I compete with the Donnelly Group or the Cactus [Club] or Joey's? My buying power is much less than theirs. I am barely making a living as it is and to reduce my profit margin with the hope of more clientele is not what I need at this moment," she wrote.
Aquino's worries were echoed by other owners.
"Happy hour, given that as a purchaser I am receiving no incentive whatsoever other than the mirage of 'a busy bar is a profitable one' will benefit only those who have the purchasing power to make up the loss in other ways," wrote the owner of one Vancouver restaurant. "In other words, the chains just scored a huge victory."
Vancouver 'can't handle its drink'
The restaurant owner, who criticized the liquor law changes in the email, asked that some of his comments be "off the record."
"I'm also concerned because, and I'll be quite frank as I have managed restaurants, bars and nightclubs here in Vancouver and in NYC, Vancouver simply can't handle its drink," the owner wrote, explaining that little has been done to promote responsible consumption.
"Vancouver has a black eye internationally that has reared its head across generations when it comes to public behaviour and alcohol."
"Happy Hour is as antiquated as the laws we've just amended," the owner concluded, with underlining for emphasis.
Other bar owners who responded were pleased with the idea of happy hour but some had concerns about patrons drinking too much.
"I wouldn't be comfortable serving doubles during happy hour at a reduced price in order to control consumption," wrote Maeghan Summers, general manager of The Noble Pig Brewhouse in Kamloops. "We see it being a tool to fill quiet times and to feature new food items that go with the beverage features."
If bar owners were worried about unfair competition, loss of profits and danger from over-consumption, many consumers wrote the government that they were furious that happy hour forced drink prices to go up, not down.
In one of many emails obtained through FOI one consumer wished to "voice my extreme dismay at the recent increase in liquor prices instituted under the guise of 'Happy Hour.'"
"In short, this is an obvious tax grab (higher prices = more liquor tax collected). This is also an obvious barrel of pork for the bigger licensees, such as those represented by ABLE [the Alliance of Beverage Licensees of BC], whereby you have given them the means to keep their prices high and to avoid competition, at the expense of all British Columbians and the possibility of a more modern and healthy social environment," the consumer - whose name was removed in the FOI - wrote.
And he or she warned that their political support for the BC Liberals was in jeopardy.
"By these actions, the BC Liberal Party, and the LCLB in particular, have lost 100 per cent of my faith and trust, as well as my vote. Not only will I be continuing to oppose these changes, but I feel betrayed enough that I am seriously considering working against the BC Liberal Party in general, and actively supporting a different party which puts the interests of ordinary British Columbians first," the consumer wrote, copying it to New Democrat MLA Shane Simpson.
Some of the correspondence sent to the government is humorous, as well as pointed.
"BC's minimum [alcohol] pricing is 40-50 per cent higher than the rest of Canada... I don't believe B.C. residents are 50 per cent wealthier than Ontario or 50 per cent more susceptible to intoxication than other provinces," another unnamed person from Vancouver wrote on June 23.
"As a consumer, I felt the impact immediately, when I went to one of my local restaurants (a Japanese tapas place on Smithe) for appetizers and beer with friends, and the price had been raised from $10 to $15 over-night on their draft beer," the person wrote.
"There was no notice or public consultation on this minimum pricing. It was announced on Friday, effective immediately and the news release stated business owners and industry associations were consulted; it seems consumers were left out," the writer concluded.
Another wrote to Anton on June 23: "While the whole city was looking forward to happy hour, now that it is finally in place, the set 'minimum' pricing is absolutely ridiculous. We are the most expensive in the country by a long shot, and in fact drink prices will INCREASE in certain situations."
"This is NOT happy hour. Every other city in the world has a happy hour. We finally get the law passed, and our government still screws up?"
There's still more information to come from my Freedom Of Information request. This was only a partial disclosure.
But one thing is already abundantly clear -- the B.C. government ignored all warnings from bar owners about unfair competition and overconsumption and imposed a happy hour that raised drink prices, then thumbed its nose at consumer complaints.
Happy hour made some very happy -- just not independent bars or consumers.


Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Governments push fear, flu shots despite dropping efficacy, dubious death claims

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose gets flu shots
Vaccines provide 'moderate' protection,' studies show.

So why are they pushed on the public?
Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column
Tuesday December 2, 2014
By Bill Tieleman
"Scaring people justifies evidence-free policies." 
          - Dr. Tom Jefferson, Cochrane Respiratory Infections Group, on overstating flu deaths
As British Columbians are encouraged, pushed and sometimes threatened in order to get a flu shot, there are increasing questions about its effectiveness and whether the vaccine is necessary -- or if flu deaths are as bad as claimed.
However, these uncomfortable truths are barely being heard amidst the overwhelming and persistent health establishment claims that the flu shot is needed and effective at saving lives.
"Between 4,000 and 8,000 Canadians can die of influenza and its complications annually, depending on the severity of the season," Immunize Canada says on its website. It's acoalition of pharmaceutical companies that produce vaccines, health organizations and charities.
And federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose said in a Nov. 7news release that the flu is "associated" with 3,500 deaths in Canada annually on average.
But is all this even true? Consider these important and contrary facts that are not well reported:
A U.S. National Vital Statistics studyfound that in 2010 just 500 people's deaths could be directly attributed to the flu.
Meanwhile, a new study published in November by The Journal of Infectious Diseases found that flu shots provided only "moderate" protection rates of 49 per cent in the 2012-13 flu season.
The study also suggested that the flu vaccine did not significantly protect against Influenza A H3N2 -- one of three influenza viruses included in this year's flu shot -- in children ages nine through 17, a finding that puzzled the authors.
And another University of Minnesota study -- with an admittedly small sample -- says the overall effectiveness of flu shots in 2012-13 was found to be just 32 per cent -- a far cry from the still modest 59 per cent rate claimed last year in Canada.
That study also "yielded more evidence that getting a flu shot two years in a row may result in lower vaccine effectiveness in the second year, and also that the effects of a flu shot may last more than one season."
Elderly most vulnerable
And a study quoted in The Lancet Infectious Diseases found almost 90 per cent of flu deaths occur among the elderly population. It also notes that the seniors who get the flu shot are only 28 per cent to 58 per cent less likely to get the illness.
Yet as of Dec. 1, all frontline health care workers in B.C. -- and hospital visitors -- are forced to either get a flu shot or wear a mask in hospitals, care homes and other facilities. B.C. is the only province to demand such a choice but others are eager to follow.
If the effectiveness of flu shots is so low that only one in two or less who get it are protected from the flu, it means patients, healthcare workers and others will have a false sense of security.
Yet the odds are 50-50 that your doctor, nurse, care aide, cleaner or visitor who got the flu shot is still vulnerable to the illness. If a patient sees 10 people a day in hospital, the likelihood is that five could still get the flu even if all had the shot.
It's one reason why a top Canadian infection control expert now argues against -- not for -- mandatory flu shots for health care workers.
"A few years ago, I was also for mandatory flu shots [for health-care workers]," Dr. Michael Gardam told The Globe and Mail newspaper in October.
"Then what happened is I started reading and I started going back to the original studies. I don't feel that I can sugar-coat those any more," said Gardam, who is director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto.
The Globe says another physician points out that some of the loudest medical voices arguing for mandatory flu shots have received research and other funding from vaccine companies. But that doctor was too concerned about backlash to be publicly identified.
Mandatory shots or masks
Yet B.C. forced health care workers to either get the shot or wear a mask for their entire shift -- something few can handle for four months -- and a union grievance opposing mandatory measures was lost in arbitration, giving workers no choice.
And while the side effects of the flu shot are said to be minimal and not seriously harmful, there are disturbing incidents that have not been reported widely.
For example, last month Italy suspended use of two batches of Fluad influenza vaccine produced by giant pharmaceutical company Novartis after 11 people died this year shortly after receiving the shot.
It's important to understand that Novartis says that "no causal relationship" has been found between the vaccine and the deaths and that a review of the two batches "has confirmed that they are in conformity with all production and quality standards."
The Italian Pharmaceutical Agency said in a statement that: "At the moment it's not possible to confirm that there is a direct link between taking the vaccine and the reported deaths. More complete information is necessary and a thorough analysis of the cases must be conducted."
Novartis was expected to deliver 850,000 flu shot doses in Canada this year and no issues have been raised with their quality.

UPDATE: I  am pleased to update my column with news that the Italian drug authorities have cleared the two Novartis flu shot batches of being connected with 13 deaths in Italy. Here is a link to that story:

I have argued previously that the flu shot is being oversold while under-performing and all these new studies and information add further evidence.
The contradiction between what the public is being told by health authorities and the very different conclusions in some studies are at least confusing if not downright concerning.
The flu can indeed be deadly for the vulnerable -- and prevention may be the best course for some.
But if you are thinking of getting a flu shot, get all the facts first. 

BC Liberals' Liquor 'Modernization' Will Cost You

BC Liquor Stores - endangered?
Don't be fooled. This is 'unhappy hour' all over again.
Bill Tieleman's 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column 
Tuesday November 25, 2014
By Bill Tieleman
"A liquor store is where they collect taxes for the government and also sell liquor."
          - Anonymous
Consumers will pay for the B.C. government's misleading "modernization" of liquor pricing -- and more convenience will come at a hefty price.
That's definitely not the message BC Liberal Attorney General Suzanne Anton wanted you to hear last week, but higher prices for wine, beer and spirits are the inevitable result of the most sweeping liquor changes in the province in decades.
Anton said the changes will introduce a "level playing field" and let a "competitive market" flourish, when -- just like the B.C. government's earlier "happy hour"announcement that increased rather than lowered bar booze prices -- the exact opposite is true.
Consumers will pay dearly for the changes, including supermarkets selling wine, beer and spirits starting next April, while smaller liquor industry players get hurt and the big boys cash in.
Confused? That's because the BC Liberals want you mystified while behind the scenes the cutthroat liquor industry engages in a bloody war to maximize profits and reduce true competition.
And despite the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU) issuing a positive news release supporting the changes, its public liquor store members may eventually see their jobs eliminated through gradual privatization, as the new single wholesale price makes government stores less competitive.
Wholesale price change
The biggest change is to the wholesale price of liquor. All liquor stores -- the several categories of private operators, plus government outlets -- will pay one wholesale price next year.
That is a radical departure from the current system, and despite Anton's optimism, the reality is that government liquor stores will have to raise prices and private stores will follow closely behind.
Right now, the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch sets a retail price and makes its profits from a combination of markups on top of actual product costs that amounts to about 117 per cent.
Currently, there are 196 government liquor stores, 670 private liquor stores, 221 rural agency stores and 12 independent wine stores.
The private stores buy their products at three different discounts from the distribution branch: 30 per cent less for independent wine stores (wine only), 16 per cent for licensee retail stores (cold beer, wine and spirits), and 12 per cent for rural agency stores (all products). Those discounts are what allow the stores to cover their costs and make a profit.
But next year, all that goes out the window for a single wholesale price.
Mark Hicken, a lawyer who specializes in liquor issues, has posted an analysis on his website that identifies who wins and loses based on the limited information released by government, and you won't find consumers in the winner column.
Hicken writes that, at least when it comes to wine, licensee retail stores and rural agency stores will be better off with the new wholesale price, while independent wine stores will be much worse off and government stores will face significant challenges -- though they will be allowed to open Sundays and sell cold beer and wine for the first time.
'Taking away our competitive advantage'
John Clerides, owner of Vancouver's independent Marquis Wine Cellars, believes consumers will pay more.
"I think the price goes up," Clerides said in an interview Sunday. "It's going to take some time to sort out."
But Clerides already knows his independent wine store -- one of 12 -- and its customers will be losers because their 30 per cent discount from the government price disappears, while his competitors who can sell beer and spirits will now buy wine at the same price.
"The independent stores are screwed because we don't have any additional products -- beer and spirits -- and we can't sell to restaurants, so we're at a competitive disadvantage," Clerides said.
Independent wine stores had argued if the private licensee retail stores were to get the same wholesale price for wine, the wine stores should in return be allowed to sell beer and spirits as compensation to make up for lost business. But the government did not agree.
The umbrella organization for cold beer and wine licensee retail stores is not happy either, but primarily about allowing government stores to compete on Sundays and with refrigerated products.
"From a business perspective, we're very disappointed in this," Jeff Guignard, executive director with the Alliance of Beverage Licensees B.C., told the Province newspaper.
"A lot of retailers have invested millions of dollars (to install refrigeration). It would cost tens of thousands of government taxpayer funds to give consumers something they already have. They're taking away our competitive advantage... and they're keeping the playing field tilted in their favour," Guignard said.
Public stores need to pump sales
Indeed, the BCGEU is surprisingly upbeat about the announcement, "applauding" the changes and saying unionized government stores now "can compete with private stores."
The union does, however, warn that the single wholesale price will only be in the public interest if the province's $1-billion revenue stream from liquor is protected.
"These are important changes that we have been recommending for many years and are long overdue," BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said.
"These changes will offer increased convenience for shoppers and make the public stores even more competitive. With almost 200 outlets, larger stores, greater selection and knowledgeable staff, public liquor stores can compete with private stores."
I am more skeptical. With a reduced markup and significantly higher labour costs, government stores will need to pump up the volume of sales to compete when private stores pay a lower wholesale price.
Smaller government stores with lower sales will likely be targeted for closure or sale to the private sector in the long term. And the unionized workforce with higher wages, benefits and pensions will be under enormous pressure to reduce costs to the level of the non-union competition.
'Level' playing field?
Anton, of course, is elated with the changes, stating in a news release that: "Underpinning many of our liquor changes -- including our models for liquor in grocery stores and wholesale pricing -- is the concept that government needs to get out of the way and leave more to market forces.
"It is our expectation that, starting April 2015, these changes will create a more competitive market for retailers. The changes we're making to the wholesale price today will enable more competition between retailers to attract British Columbians into their stores and should not force any change in shelf prices."
But Clerides is scathing about how the government controls all aspects of the liquor industry.
"What is ‘level' about what they've done?" Clerides asks. "The regulator, the wholesaler and the retailer -- the Liquor Distribution Branch -- are making the rules under which you're competing!"
Wine, beer and spirits in more stores, and none of it cheaper than today. Welcome to liquor modernization, BC Liberal style.
UPDATE:  Since my column came out, John Clerides and Mark Hicken have been featured in The Vancouver Sun and Global TV BC reports with additional information about the wholesale price forcing wine prices to rise dramatically, particularly on wines currently retailing for $20 or more.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Vancouver Progressives: Divided, They Fell Short - Thanks To Vote-Splitting

Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson election night on stage - Bill Tieleman photo
Centre-left risked disaster, lost school and park boards with vote-splitting

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column
Tuesday November 18, 2014
By Bill Tieleman
"Where there is unity, there is always victory."
- Publilius Syrus, Roman author 1st century B.C.
Vancouver's centre-left risked political disaster in Saturday's municipal election and still paid a price for well-intentioned vote splitting.
Mayor Gregor Robertson won a strong victory, leading a Vision Vancouver third term majority council after a very tough, nasty battle.
But lack of unity resulted in Vision losing Councillor Tony Tang, its majority on the Vancouver School Board and all but one seat on the Vancouver Park Board, where the right-wing Non-Partisan Association takes control.
And for what?
Voters who threw some votes to the marginalized, hard-left Coalition of Progressive Electors, or One City's sole council candidate R.J. Aquino or the Public Education Project's Jane Bouey and Gwen Giesbrecht didn't come close to electing a single candidate at any level.
But those voters succeeded, most unknowingly, in ensuring NPA gains of one more councillor and school board trustee and two more park board commissioners.
How? In our unfortunate at large system for the whole city, every candidate is competing with all others -- even from their own party.
Vancouver is one of the only major cities in Canada without wards or ridings for council -- where voters pick their own local representatives and only the mayor is chosen citywide.
So when centre-left voters split their vote, giving some to non-Vision candidates who had no chance to win, they accidentally let the NPA -- with its disciplined, united vote -- win more seats.
Left punishing Vision helped NPA
Some voters were disappointed with Vision Vancouver for reasons like consultation -- as Robertson himself acknowledged with an apology during the campaign and again in his victory speech.
But most voted obliviously for losing left candidates without realizing they were giving the NPA a leg up to more seats.
They didn't heed my warning nor that from ex-COPE councilor David Cadman, who endorsed Robertson and Vision before the election.

"I think this election is too important to risk splitting the vote among variety of new parties and have the risk of losing city council, because with it will go affordable housing, harm reduction, homelessness strategy, greenest city initiative, public transit, a whole variety of things," Cadman said. "[It's] what the city progressively needs."
Former COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth agreed, noting that: "I think the decision of who to vote for on council is confusing, and in that confusion, the vote gets split."
Small numbers, big shifts
And only a small number of votes makes a big difference in who gets elected.
For example, Vision school trustee Ken Clement got 57,826 votes but lost the last Vancouver School Board position to NPA opponent Christopher Richardson by just 255 votes.
PEP's Bouey had 41,757 votes and COPE's Diana Day had 39,068 -- nowhere near enough to win -- but had just a few hundred of those votes gone to Clement, Vision would retain its majority. It's impossible to tell exactly how each voter cast their ballots but it's obvious that some votes split to cost Clement his seat.
Which is not to deny that every individual and party has the right to run, and voters the right to choose them. But elections are about making tough choices and one of those is to determine who is most likely to be successful, in addition to their policies and character.
And in situations like a citywide election, voters face a dauntingly complex ballot with over 100 candidates from 10 parties.
So while people don't like slate voting, nor negative advertising, both work, as can be seen from the 10 per cent increase voter turnout and the results of the election.
Outside the tent
Ironically, Aquino, Bouey and Giesbrecht could all have run with Vision Vancouver and likely been elected -- certainly Aquino and Bouey were approached to do so and declined.
And all refused to endorse Vision candidates at all three levels, leading Vision to not endorse them in return.
Vision is a classic "big tent" municipal party but they preferred to be outside because of some limited differences -- and now sit on the sidelines as a result.
Is opposition to developers vastly more important than fighting homelessness, supporting public education in the face of provincial underfunding, protecting the environment and encouraging positive labour relations? That's one of the conclusions drawn from the split vote.
Meanwhile the Green Party, which split from an alliance with Vision in 2011, capitalized on Councillor Adriane Carr's profile, adding two park commissioners and a school trustee but not breaking through further on council.
But it's important to realize that -- as Carr herself has noted -- the Greens are not left and have sided with the NPA on some issues.
"We are neither left, nor right, but out front, appealing to voters across the political spectrum," Carr said in June. That works fine for some but leaves many wondering where the Greens will come down on any given issue.
COPE was more pointed in its approach, attacking its former electoral partner Vision at every opportunity -- "We can't afford four more years of Vision Vancouver" -- and running a mayoral candidate for the first time since 2002.
But COPE's Meena Wong only succeeded in making the Robertson versus LaPointe battle much closer than it would have been otherwise by picking up 16,791 votes for a distant third place.
Similarly, COPE's strategy of fielding near full slates for council, school and park board meant running against Vision -- and intentionally risking an NPA majority on all three.
Casualties and strategies
Sadly, many of the electoral casualties of disunity were people of colour bringing broader representation to politics -- councillor Tony Tang, school board trustees Ken Clement -- the only First Nations representative -- and Cherie Payne, while promising candidates like Vision's Niki Sharma for council, Sammie Jo Rumbaua and Naveen Girn for Park Board were defeated.
The results should mean a rethink of strategy for the Vancouver and District Labour Council and affiliated unions, which endorsed a mixed slate that included all Vision candidates but included One City, PEP and COPE.
Lastly, something must be said about the bizarre and powerful impact of the alphabet on Vancouver elections.
Five of the 10 elected councillors have a last name starting with the first four letters of the alphabet -- George Affleck, Elizabeth Ball, Adriane Carr, Heather Deal and newcomer Melissa de Genova. And four of nine school trustees have A-F letters starting their last names, while three of seven park commissioners start with C-E.
Regrettably and despite all the important issues facing Vancouver and the wide range of political choices for voters, the "alphabet advantage" appears to be significant.
Ballots should be arranged with either names chosen at random for position instead of alphabetically or be grouped by party to make it fairer for candidates cursed with last names that appear far lower now on the ballot.
If Vancouver's election was a "wake up" call for Vision, it's also alarming for centre-left voters, who inadvertently defeated good incumbents and new candidates and narrowly averted electoral disaster.