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A Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights

In Ontario, beer drinkers lack some basic rights. Beer drinkers are consumers, but oddly, they lack consumer protection. In a historic sense, this is an aberration. For thousands ofyears, beer has been a major part of diet, and thus subject to regulation. Almost 4,000 years ago, Hammurabi's Code made short measure of beer a crime. In medieval England, selling watery beer was an offence. And the sixteenth century Purity Law banned the use of adjunct, such as corn and rice, in Bavaria. But sadly, Ontario has little interest in protecting the consumer.

Beer drinkers are also citizens. They deserve to participate in formulating the laws that relate to the sale of beer. In Ontario, the large brewers have a huge influence on beer regulation.

But drinkers are seldom, if ever, consulted. It’s time we were. As consumers and citizens, beer drinkers have seven basic rights.

Hammurabi's Code

The first right is to fair trade, the right to buy beer in a competitive market. Outrageously, the three largest breweries in Ontario own and control a retail monopoly, the Beer Store. In fact, this drab retailer is the world’s only privately-owned beer-retail monopoly. The Beer Store monopoly diminishes competition and limits consumer choice. Recently, two small breweries that could not afford steep Beer Store fees went out of business. How manymore will go out of business because of the Beer Store monopoly?

The second right is sensible retailing. This means the right to buy beer in local stores: no one should be forced to drive long distances to buy beer -- the environmental cost is simply too high. It means the right to buy single bottles of beer. Finally, sensible retailing means the right to buy with any legal medium of exchange, including credit cards. The Beer Store has yet to discover credit cards.

The third right is honest measure in pubs. This means the right to clear measures indicating volume on draft glasses, so you know how much beer you’re buying for your money: a pint, a half litre, whatever. This is a basic right in most of Europe, a fundamental part of consumer law. Why not here?

The fourth right is honest taxation, the right to fair treatment under tax law. Beer isn’t a drug. It’s a food and should be treated as such undertax law. If alcohol is to be taxed, beer should betaxed on a unit-alcohol basis, not the entire beverage on a volume basis. In Ontario, we actually pay more tax (on a unit-alcohol basis) on low-alcohol beer than on high-alcohol beer!

Fifth, as citizens, beer drinkers should have the right to buy and drink beer at the same age other benefits of adulthood are conferred. To allow people to vote, marry, or drive a car -- but not to buy beer -- is misguided public policy.

The sixth right is informative labelling. Ingredients are listed on all foods except beer. We even know what’s in the food we give our cats and dogs, but not in the beer we put in our stomachs! Good brewers list ingredients; bad brewers must be forced to comply. And beer is perishable. Brewers must put the packaging date on the label.

Finally,the seventh right is honest advertising: the right to truth in commercial language. Language can be used, George Orwell noted, “to make liessound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Beer drinkers deserve better -- better than “genuine draft” applied to packaged beer,or “pilsner” applied to beer made with cheap rice or corn substitutes, or “all natural ingredients” applied to a brand that doesn’t even list its ingredients. Remember: arsenic and earwigs are “natural.”

Who could oppose such basic rights? In my experience, the provincial government listens only to special interests -- to the big brewers and the big unions. The ministry responsible for consumer affairs doesn’t pay any attention to consumers.

Queens Park treats beer drinkers as tax payers, not citizens. And that’s too bad. We deserve better.

Jamie MacKinnon is the author of The Great Lakes Beer Guide, published by Boston Mill Press.