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Halifax councillor calls lack of Labatt cash for city events a ‘win’

Labatt is pulling its funding from two high-profile city events because it's fed up with being accused of contributing to underage drinking.

City councillor-elect Bill Karsten calls this a "win," and he vows to lead the charge in getting enough councillors to chip in from their budgets to make up for the loss of the beer money.

But new mayor, Mike Savage, is searching for a compromise. The city needs a policy on sponsorship and alcohol, he says, noting that the Major Junior hockey team in the city, the Halifax Mooseheads, is named after a popular beer. No one is complaining about that – the team is in first place – though most of the players are underage.

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Labatt, meanwhile, announced last week that beginning next year it will not contribute $25,000 in sponsorship: $5,000 to the city's Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the Grand Parade, and $20,000 to Natal Day festivities, including the "Alexander Keith's Natal Day Parade." Alexander Keith's is a popular beer brewed in the city and is named after a long-ago mayor who founded a brewing company in the 1800s.

Labatt spokesman Wade Keller said the company took the decision because "we just found ourselves at the centre of controversy a couple of times a year and didn't see the need to be there." He said Labatt wants to be a good corporate citizen, but after a critical tweet from a provincial health official who deals with addiction, and criticism from city councilors, the company decided "we are going to remove ourselves." In his tweet, the health official, Dan Steeves, questioned whether it was appropriate for beer companies to sponsor events aimed at youth. He was referring to next month's Christmas tree lighting event.

Mr. Keller, who joined the company three years ago, and has been hearing criticisms a couple of times a year since, pointed out that there is no alcohol served at the tree-lighting event. The only branding is a beer logo that appears on a screen on stage with the other sponsoring companies. As for the August parade and festivities, there are a couple of beer gardens.

Drinking, including underage and binge drinking, is a sensitive issue in this city of about 400,000 people, where bar fights are frequent and there are 274 licensed establishments within a very concentrated downtown area. There is a "culture of overconsumption in Nova Scotia," Robert Strang, the province's public health officer, said last spring.

"We're not looking for prohibition," Mr. Karsten said. "Nobody is looking to turn 50 per cent of the population into teetotallers. It ain't going to happen in my lifetime. It's not about that at all. It's being responsible."

Mr. Karsten believes research that says the younger a child is when exposed to alcohol, including advertising, the more susceptible that child is to start drinking at an early age. He notes that in Nova Scotia, the statistics show that kids begin drinking earlier than those in other provinces – age 12.5 for boys and 13.2 for girls. And he doesn't believe that Labatt is sponsoring events out of the goodness of its corporate heart.

"If it is just simply being a good corporate citizen then, hey, we'll gladly accept your $15,000 or $10,000 … and say thank you publicly at council," he said, adding that sponsorships are clearly about marketing, too. "There has to be a plus or benefit to the company," he said.

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One thing everyone agrees on is the need for a policy on sponsorship and alcohol. In Ottawa, for example, the city's corporate sponsorship and advertising policy prohibits advertising that promotes "alcohol and other addictive substances at venues geared primarily to children."

Mr. Savage wants to see the issue debated from all sides, including the medical officer of health. But he believes there is room for the beer companies to provide sponsorship.

Labatt's Mr. Keller wants to be involved in that policy debate, one he argues should be broadened beyond alcohol. "We know childhood obesity is an issue. There are many products that could be linked to that … should those companies be allowed to sponsor things?" he asks.

Mr. Karsten thinks that's just blurring the issue. "Let's deal with the alcohol first," he said.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More


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