This Opinions Piece Was Submitted Anonymously …

Those of us who have spent years frequenting George Street are seeing a change on our beloved entertainment district. And not for the better.

Just a few years ago, crowds of people of ALL ages flooded George Street every weekend and all summer long. It was always busy, and bar hopping was a necessity to see who was out. Often times the street itself was so full that you’d be able to spend the whole night outside and still have fun and see dozens of friends.

But lately the street is a ghost town most nights with the exception of a few consistent bars, or whichever bar is hosting the most hyped event of that week (if any). Many bar owners are struggling to keep their doors open due to a lack of market in the formerly prosperous area, and industry related workers from taxi drivers and food service establishments are feeling the pinch as well.

Many theorize that the slowing economy is to blame, however industry staff and bar owners who have experience will often attest to the fact that historically George Street has gotten busier in harsh economic times. People seek entertainment more when stress levels rise, even when money is sparse. So where has the market gone? Has George Street just lost its appeal to locals and tourists alike?

The Role of Minimum Drink Pricing …

Competition on the street is dead, and the market has become almost impossible to breach. Though there were many possible factors leading to this, one of the main issues that allowed such a polar shift in the market was the provincial minimum drink pricing rate (a part of the Liquor Control Act).

This, in combination with the wholesale liquor crediting (discounting), has opened the doors for mini-monopolies to develop and prevent competitors from entering or surviving in the market.

The minimum drink pricing in Newfoundland is among the lowest in Canada at $1.67 per Oz or 355ml beer. This makes deals like 3 for 5 just barely legal.

At rates like 3oz for $5 it is almost impossible for bars to make enough profit to survive considering 3 vodka cranberries will cost over $5 when taking into account cost of cups, straws, ice, juice, and liquor (not to mention the labour from the bartender, Dj, and security during the time it takes to make the drinks).

Similarly three 355ml beer these days will cost you over $7 at the liquor store. It’s also important to note that the price of alcohol goes up every year too due to taxes. And in case you weren’t aware, Liquor licensed establishments pay the same for liquor as you do up from at the liquor store!

RObSo how is this even possible? How can bars possibly make a profit when selling drinks so cheap?

The first strategy is an age old business technique where the most profitable business in an industry or area willingly takes a loss on the products they sell to make sure the entire market comes to them, maintaining the competitive advantage until they either run out of money or bleed the competitors dry (at which point they raise prices again unopposed).

This method is legal and often used in the business world, however when the product that is getting sold for next to nothing is a drug like alcohol there should be some concern for public mental and physical health as a result of this practice.

The Role of Liquor Discount Incentives …

The second method that allowed a market monopoly to take place was Liquor discount incentives.

As a liquor retailer, depending on the liquor or beer representative, the business receives 1 free bottle of liquor for every 3 or 5 bottles of their sponsored brand purchased (Basically buy three get one free). The same goes for beer products as well.

Therefore the higher the sales of a bar, the more free booze they get, which they in turn sell for the minimum legal price to undercut competitors, leading to more sales and more free booze to sell for the minimum and the process grows exponentially.

The longer this goes on, the more difficult it is for new bars or existing bars to try and regain enough sales to become once again profitable.

The above factors are causing a rapid narrowing of the market on George Street because:

  • Those who don’t enjoy the music, environment, or dense crowds of the dominant bars are now refraining from going downtown at all.
  • Struggling bars are turning to bending or breaking rules like drug or age policies to facilitate more sales, leading to an increase in unsavory characters and drug-related violence on the street and a decrease in those who try to avoid that type of environment.
  • Since cheap drinks and binge drinking mainly cater to youth, relatively older people feel less welcome on the street anymore and refrain from going down.
  • Music enthusiasts and musicians who crave unique or local music are turned off by the commercial music nature of the dominant clubs and no longer attend George Street.
  • Many bars on the verge of closing their doors.

Not only is this trend affecting bar owners, taxi drivers, and the food industry, it also hurts our local economy in other ways. Binge drinking often leads to destruction of public property, costs incurred from arresting or controlling belligerent citizens, crime rate increases, and immediate and long term medical expenses charged to taxpayers.

Tourism is also taking a massive hit by this trend. There’s not much reason to visit the island for George Street anymore, once boasted as the highest density bar district in canada, it’s now just a sketchy ghost town with a few busy bars. Not to mention the bad press the street has been getting on news outlets from the telegram to CBC to The Globe and Mail for violence and sexual assault likely at least in part, due to the recent trends.

So Who Sets the Minimum Drink Prices?

Provincial governments are responsible for setting these regulations and every province does it differently. Newfoundland has one of the lowest minimum drink rates (and highest rates of binge drinking).

Newfoundland in particular hasn’t changed its prices since the early 90s, meaning in hasn’t been adjusted for inflation over the past 16 ish years. Meanwhile taxes on alcohol increase every year, making it even harder to sell at the minimum drink price every year.

Accounting for 16 years of inflation the minimum drink price should be around $2.68. After adding the increase in cost of liquor over the past 16 years to the equation it should be well over $3.00 in Newfoundland right now.

The Health & Cultural Implications … 

According to the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse “higher prices translate into lower consumption and reduced alcohol-related harm, while lower prices lead to increases in consumption and related harm.” This provides reliable evidence that lower prices are related to alcohol related harm, at the same time these lower prices are targeting our youth who will be at the forefront of the damage done.

NIAAA defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men—in about 2 hours.”

3 for $5 or $2 drinks is an insane drink price when you consider the facts above. One person can walk into a bar, drop $5 and drink 3 drinks within 2 minutes. Since you can’t hold 3 drinks at once, chugging them is common.

When 4 drinks in two hours can be defined as binge drinking, how can we justify serving drinks this cheap? Then we wonder why there’s so much violence on the street and why our population has staggering rates of mental health issues, drug abuse, and obesity.

About a year ago the City of St. John’s tried to weigh in on their opinion for why there’s so much crime on George. “What’s happening is that sometimes when the bars close people congregate in that area and things happen that shouldn’t,” said Art Puddister, council representative on the committee.

Puddister is alluding to fights, drinking on the street, and drug use. All of which escalates, the committee suggests, when crowds spill from bars onto the famous downtown strip.” The report also suggested moving food vendors off George Street and into a well-lit location.

It’s absolute insanity to blame the on-street location of food carts (a damn good way to sober up by the way), or the fact that people tend to be social and stand in groups.

It’s also wrong to blame the time of day for violence and crime. The time of day is literally just the location of the sun in reference to the point where you’re standing, so no Mr. Art Puddister, the sun’s position in the sky does not affect a human’s capacity or tendency for violence. Lets look at the real issues here, and start addressing them.

The Cultural Implications of These Changes …

George Street used to be a place of musical inspiration, a place where musicians from all over the province could come play or enjoy local music, or just music that is generally unique from the radio.

The current generation of patrons are only interested in getting drunk cheap and quick. They pay no regards to the real musicians who bust their ass for true love of the art (this includes DJs too!), or the local music in which this street was built on (this includes local electronic music too!).

George Street is dying and it’s not because of our economy or the weather. We need to get enough public support to invoke a change in our minimum drink pricing, because the government is not looking out for us in this case. A few more years of this trend will lead to a lot of boarded up windows on George and that will be a sad day for St. John’s.

This Opinions Piece Was Submitted Anonymously …