WHYTE & MACKAY SPECIAL—If you have to pay sin tax, pay it on something cheap

My parents are refusing to buy any more booze. It’s too expensive and—if you believe the dire predictions about the upcoming privatization of BC Liquor Stores—it’s going to get more expensive. I don’t know what’s cooking in my parents’ heads right now…they’re planning a change of headquarters…they’re doing budgets—all painfully boring and seemingly designed to torture yours truly.

Why is alcohol so expensive in Canada?

Seriously! A 750mL bottle of JOHNNIE WALKER BLACK LABEL is $49.99 in Canada versus $34.95 in the US. With our dollar just a couple of cents off par, what could explain this massive difference?

The answer is excise tax, imposed in Canada on goods such as tobacco, alcohol, gasoline, and vehicle air conditioners. Also known as sin tax, excise tax operates in theory as a disincentive to use harmful products, even though these products are often labeled inelastic precisely because imposition of tax (or any other variable) has little effect on net consumption.


Essentially, the argument goes, people smoke, drink, drive, and cool themselves as per their own ideologies and lifestyle choices. Increasing or decreasing tax on these choices does not markedly change them; studies show that people continue to consume what they consume—they just bitch more about the prices.

But does this mean excise tax serves only as a penalty for “sin”?

Not according to the prevailing wisdom on excise tax—that higher prices deter consumption while (circuitously) offsetting associated health costs.

It’s hard to pin down the correct assumption. Would hardcore smokers smoke four packs a day instead of two if the price were cut? What margin of society would stay constantly drunk if booze were cheap? Given people’s jobs and obligations—not to mention public proscriptions against public smoking and drinking and social pressures to at least approximate a healthy lifestyle—it’s hard to imagine that, at least for the majority of people, tax cuts would launch them toward debauchery. Not everyone is as thoroughly lacking in judgment as your host here.

Arguments in favor generally fall into three categories:

  • Moral. Excise tax gives pause to people who would otherwise show no restraint. But can you derive good, “moral” behavior through monetary means? Is the tax a disincentive or a punishment?
  • Medical. Forty-five thousand Canadians die from smoking each year. Alcohol-related costs are harder to isolate, however. A glass of merlot with dinner is heart-healthy; a box of merlot is not. The healthy “sweet spot” lies somewhere on the continuum between. How can it be defined without Big Brother’s assistance? Surely, if one glass is healthy, that glass should be subsidized, not taxed…
  • Financial. Especially in countries with tax-funded healthcare, smokers and drinkers burden society with their treatment costs and should therefore pay taxes on the products that eventuate in their ailments. Or should they? According to a Dutch study, overall lifetime health expenditure is highest among healthy-living individuals, precisely because they live longer, whereas their smoking and/or obese counterparts check out earlier, relieving the medical system. Wow!

Photo: CBC

But conclusions from a study conducted in the Netherlands don’t necessarily make the leap to Canada. More relaxed attitudes toward alcohol, reduced emphasis on driving, and a greater acceptance of socialized medicine contrast glaringly with Canada’s moralistic attitudes on alcohol. Whereas alcohol is a casual element of European dining that extends to teenagers, in Canada and the US, alcohol gets built up to Holy Grail status, leading teenagers to binge-drink at the first opportunity. All-or-nothing morality guides prohibitions on youthful drinking (dry grad, anyone?), leading to adolescent obsessions with alcohol (“I’m gonna get so wasted”) as opposed to healthful incorporation of alcohol as a life skill. So when doctors write in the Canadian Medical Journal that alcohol costs Canadians $3.3 billion in annual health costs, they’re not joking. But is the solution to tax the shit out of alcohol, or is it to educate people on how to use alcohol safely?

Admittedly it’s too late for me, my fellow inebriates. For now I take refuge in cheap finds such as WHYTE & MACKAY SPECIAL BLENDED SCOTCH WHISKY. At $25 for a 750mL bottle you really can’t do better—at least not in Canada. THE DALMORE SINGLE HIGHLAND MALT is the primary backbone, blended with some well-judged mystery whiskies, and treated with double cask maturation. Generous and malty on the nose, WHYTE & MACKAY is a lovely amber and offers rich malt and sherry on the palate, tapering from sweet to dry and lingering pleasantly. There’s no smoke to speak of and little complexity—but there’s nothing offensive either. This is an excellent rocks Scotch—an easy, undemanding sipper for when you want a wee dram without feeling too extravagant.

HEINEKEN Lager—but DON’T read this if you’re underage

Tweet from HEINEKEN today:

“Thanks for following! Our content is intended for people of Legal Drinking Age so please don’t share it with those who aren’t. Cheers!”

I’m really glad HEINEKEN reminded me about this. I would never want to divulge the existence of alcoholic beverages to people under legal drinking age. To the best of my knowledge, most teenagers are unsullied by any awareness of beer. This is good for North America, because knowledge is dangerous, and knowing about beer could be a gateway for knowing about wine, and vodka, and tequila. OMG.

Drink responsibly.

Teenagers already make a decent effort not to learn anything, so if HEINEKEN’s on track with this idea, shielding them from any information about alcohol should enable them to glide past its temptations—at least until Dad buys them their inaugural 19th-birthday drink at the bar, little knowing they’ll have a dozen more with their friends later and need their hair held back over the vomit-gulping toilet.

I wonder if HEINEKEN would apply the same logic to sex. Don’t tell teenagers about sex, and it won’t occur to them.

Now, to whom would this logic be logical? Oh yeah—half of North America. The half that overlaps with the young-earth and intelligent-design clubs.

Amsterdam's Red Light District (Wikipedia)

I shouldn’t really single out HEINEKEN; this is obviously a policy thing, a hedge against a litigious world where, heaven forefend, someone might sue them for sewing the seeds of drunkenness in the impressionable. It just hit a funny note for me because HEINEKEN comes from the Netherlands, whose Red Light District is internationally famous for liberalism about sex, drugs and drinking.

Getting to the point, what is HEINEKEN, and should we drink it?

When people think HEINEKEN, they think skunky. The skunkiest of popular beers, this lager nevertheless holds mainstream status. HEINEKEN pours yellow, fizzy and watery, the carbonation dissipating quickly. The fizz is essential to HEINEKEN’s drinkability, as whatever pleasant malty taste might be in there is playing second fiddle to the headlining aromas, so some fireworks are necessary to distract the mouth from the nose, or reconcile them, or something.

Knowing about alcohol leads to deviant behavior.

All that said, I really enjoy HEINEKEN. It reminds me of Amsterdam, where I’ve never been but where I expect I might find interspecies couplings like the one I sometimes enjoy with my girlfriend Dolly when she’s in the mood and her nose is plugged up.