Since prohibition ended in the 1920s, British Columbia liquor laws have been significantly liberalized, moves that most British Columbians have welcomed.
Recall that at one time bars were prohibited from playing music, serving food, hiring female serving staff, and allowing women and men to drink together. Up until the 1950s, bars were also only allowed to be located in hotels and members-only clubs. Bowing to public pressure to relax these puritanical regulations, successive governments from across the political spectrum reformed the more arcane aspects of B.C.’s liquor laws.
However, successive reforms have left many inconsistencies within B.C.’s liquor regulations, with none so glaring as the rules that prohibit movie theatres from serving alcohol to patrons.
Current regulations, as set out in the Liquor Control and Licensing Act and the associated Liquor Control and Licensing Regulations, explicitly prohibit three types of establishments from obtaining liquor licenses: movie theatres, video arcades, and any business whose primary purpose caters to youth.
Originally passed by the NDP government in 1975, the Liquor Control and Licensing Act replaced the Government Liquor Act. But following an election that year, the drafting of regulations under the act fell to the newly elected Social Credit government. Although the new act and regulations were a leap forward for B.C.’s liquor laws, according to historian Robert A. Campbell, the Social Credit government added many strange rules due to pressure from a small, but vocal, anti-liquor faction of party supporters.
Prohibiting movie theatres from serving alcohol is usually not an issue, since movie theatres generally cater to families and teenagers and may be happy with ticket revenue and mark-ups on popcorn and soft drinks. However, this antiquated exclusion hampers the development of boutique and multi-use movie theatres that cater to a more adult crowd. This was recently exemplified when the Rio Theatre in Vancouver was required to stop showing movies in order to obtain a liquor licence. The Rio is a multi-use theatre catering to both movie buffs and indie music fans.
Excluding movie theatres, especially multi-use movie theatres, from obtaining liquor licences is logically inconsistent. Any bar in B.C. can show movies, so long as a liquor control board bureaucrat does not deem the venue a movie theatre. Venues for operas, concerts, live theatre, and sporting events can all serve alcohol in BC. Even bowling alleys and IKEA can serve beer. Yet movie theatres are excluded.
The only justification that seems at all plausible for this exclusion is a concern for minors. Yet if that is the case, then the regulation is redundant, since there is also a regulation specifically excluding establishments that cater mainly to minors from obtaining liquor licences.
This problem could obviously be remedied for places like the Rio Theatre by requiring an age restriction on patrons of movie theatres that serve alcohol. This is in fact how Ontario has solved the problem, where alcohol can be served in movie theatres limited to patrons who are over 19. This approach is also common in many U.S. states and European countries.
However, even this type of requirement is logically inconsistent with the current treatment of other types of entertainment venues in B.C. Concert halls, sporting events, and bowling alleys, which all can serve alcohol, are not required to restrict entry to patrons over the age of 19.
One possible solution is the elimination of the regulation specifically excluding movie theatres but leave as is the regulation that excludes businesses catering mainly to minors. Movie theatres that can prove they cater to a market mainly comprised of adults should be allowed to obtain a liquor licence. At the same time, a theatre multiplex that may not be able to prove this claim should be allowed to serve alcohol in some of its theatres if appropriate age restrictions are imposed.
Although liquor laws in B.C. have come a long way since prohibition, improvements can still be made. A clear and easy next step for reform is to allow movie theatres in BC to serve alcoholic beverages.
Joel Wood is an economist with the Fraser Institute’s Centre for Risk and Regulation. You can follow him on Twitter @JoelWWood.