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Legislating against cheap drinks ignores the problem of irresponsible bringe drinking

Haligonians don't have a drinking problem. We drink, we get drunk, we fall down. No problem! Oh, and we go a little crazy for cheap drinks. We sometimes have bar brawls. We've been known to get a little bit horny, melancholy, belligerent and/or delusional about our hotness when we've had a few. And we tend to eat donair. No problem! Except 1) all that would be hard to read when it's printed on a funny, hopefully puke-resistant, t-shirt, and 2) our provincial politicians might try to price said t-shirt out of existence.

A few days before Christmas, labour and workforce development minister Mark Parent announced a major change for alcohol selling. "The province is increasing drink prices to encourage people to drink responsibly," says the press release. "The move stems from an incident in Halifax in December 2007 that saw several people arrested for being intoxicated in public. Low drink prices were deemed to have been a contributing factor."

The only rule used to be that a bar couldn't sell a drink below the bar's cost of buying the booze, which gave rise to the "dollar drinks" business model used by the occasional bar. (A 40-ounce bottle of, for example, Smirnoff Red vodka costs $36.48 at the government liquor store, taxes in. You do the wonderful, wonderful math.) As of December 19, bars can't sell drinks for less than $2.50. Minister Parent's t-shirt probably says something more like "Halifax doesn't have a drinking problem, it has a bar owner problem."

Blaming the bar is certainly easy. But if a single incident at a single club can trigger sweeping change across an industry, doesn't it also raise concerns about the others who were involved? After a brawl spilled out of the Dome onto Argyle Street that Christmas Eve of '07, 38 people were arrested. If each one of them wore an "I have a drinking problem" shirt, would that make it easier for us to admit the patrons share some responsibility with the publicans?

I talked with several Halifax watchers about the situation, and there was agreement that as a society we haven't learned to handle our liquor. One source, Paul MacKinnon of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, put a finger on a fundamental lack of balance: People tend to be Puritanical toward booze consumption during the week, then indulge to excess on weekends. Bernard Smith, of Spring Garden Road's business association, suggests teaching responsible drinking to students as early as grade four or five as a way to reshape social attitudes that remain rooted in the days of Prohibition. I'd extend that education program to high schools, where students could have a beer with lunch.

Britain's pubs came up often in conversation as a positive model. Communities gather at the local watering hole, and with different generations drinking together---which in itself is a rarity in Halifax---the old effectively teach the young the value of a social tipple. It's hard to find a Haligonian who doesn't romanticize the pub tradition. It's equally hard to find a pub-like bar in residential Halifax. An explosion of pubs throughout HRM would do wonders for building both communities and alcohol awareness.

Unfortunately, we're likely to keep shirking responsibility until the scapegoats are gone. The demise of buck shots at bars doesn't "encourage people to drink responsibly," it encourages people to max out their cash by drinking more at home before heading to the meet markets. And when their arrival makes downtown drunker and less safe, you will find a politician watching from the sidelines, pointing the finger of blame, wearing a shirt that says "my government sells dollar drinks."

Liquid Paper: In "Sustainable Santa" (Dec. 11, Sustainable City) Chris Benjamin wrote that all Just Us! containers are made from bamboo. In fact, the bamboo containers don't include coffee cups and soup bowls, which are made from paper and coated with corn-based compostable plastic.

Let me know what you think of the dollar drink rule, via editor@thecoast.ca.

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