Labatt yanks sponsorship funding in Halifax after critics complain of underage drinking

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

A flap has developed in Halifax over a brewery's sponsorship of civic events that's pitting those who put principle over pocketbook against people who see it as looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Beer giant Labatt, which owns the city's Oland Brewery, is yanking funding from two high-profile events in the city after criticism that the sponsorship is contributing to underage drinking, the Globe and Mail reports.

Beginning next year, Labatt will not contribute $5,000 to the Halifax Christmas tree-lighting ceremony at its Grand Parade or $20,000 to Natal Day festivities, a summer event to mark the city's birthday. The festival and parade carry the name of Alexander Keith, the 19th-century mayor better known now as the name of a popular brand of Labatt beer.

"Every year that we sponsor the Alexander Keith's Natal Day or Christmas-tree lighting, there's a controversy around it," Labatt spokesman Wade Keller told CTV News recently.

[ Related: Calgarian launches brewery boycott twitter campaign ]

Critics say beer companies sponsoring community events have an adverse effect on youth.

"First, it causes them to lower the age of when they first have a drink," Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, the Medical Officer of Health for the Capital District Health Authority and the IWK Health Centre, told CTV News. "Here in Nova Scotia that age is 12."

Halifax Coun. Bill Karsten called Labatt's withdrawal a "win," the Globe said, and he pledged to lobby his fellow city councillors to chip in money from their budgets to make up the loss of the sponsorship money.

But Halifax Mayor Mike Savage is looking for a compromise, saying the city needs a policy on sponsorship and alcohol. For instance, the Halifax Mooseheads junior hockey team is named after a popular brand of beer even though most of the players are too young to drink.

Keller told the Globe Labatt wants to be a good corporate citizen. But after a critical tweet from provincial health official Dan Steeves questioning whether a brewery should sponsor something like the Christmas tree-lighting, "we are going to remove ourselves," Keller said.

Halifax is wrestling with the issue of drinking, including underage and binge drinking, the Globe noted. There are 274 licensed drinking establishments in a concentrated area of downtown and bar fights are frequent. Provincial public health officer Robert Strang has warned Nova Scotia has a "culture of overconsumption."

In a 2010 post, IMR Sports Marketing and Intelligence pointed to a study suggesting there were "no significant statistical correlations" between sports sponsorship awareness and attitudes towards drinking.

But Karsten said he accepts research that suggests the younger a child is exposed to booze, including through advertising, the greater the risk he or she will start drinking at an early age. He also believes sponsorships are as much about marketing as civic-mindedness.

"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 told the Globe "There has to be a plus or benefit to the company."

But Halifax radio commentator Jordi Morgan dumped on sponsorship critics, saying it "speaks to the dangers of well-meaning bureaucrats sticking their self-righteous tweets where they don't belong."

[ Related: Young Halifax men drinking above average, says report ]

"So our 21st century temperance movement got its own way on this file," Morgan ranted. "Our own latter day prohibitionist have metaphorically speaking successfully smashed the beer kegs of sponsorship, ridding our fair city of the vile influence of beer.

"Our children may now safely partake in the Natal Day Parade without fear of being driven to a life of drunkenness by the references to a former mayor of the city on an oversize inflated beer can.

"Nice job folks."