03/10/2015 06:20 EDT | Updated 05/10/2015 05:59 EDT

Liberals, NDP feud over price of drinks before April Fool's Day liquor reforms

VICTORIA - British Columbia's Liberals and Opposition New Democrats are feuding over the cost of drinks in the weeks leading up to major liquor reforms.

On April 1, grocery stores will be permitted to sell alcohol in special sections, government-run liquor stores will be able open on Sundays and the province will adopt a wholesale booze-pricing model that is intended to level the playing field in the alcohol market.

Politicians argued in the legislature Tuesday about the impact of the changes — specifically from the new wholesale pricing model, which the government initially said would not significant affect consumers.

The NDP pointed to a recent document from the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch that says wholesale prices will increase for 5,300 products, which the party predicted will mean higher prices for consumers. The Liberals countered by noting wholesale prices for about 83 per cent of the province's 33,000 liquor products will either stay the same or decrease.

NDP liquor policy critic David Eby said the new pricing scheme will likely see British Columbians paying higher prices for some of their favourite drinks. The Liquor Distribution Branch has the exclusive right to purchase liquor for resale and reuse in B.C.

"The attorney general promised that her wholesale price taxes for beer, wine and spirits 'isn't about changing prices for consumers,'" Eby said, quoting Attorney General Suzanne Anton.

Eby said the items that will become more expensive amount to almost one in five alcohol products sold in B.C. He said those increases will likely be passed on to consumers.

Anton said the government's wholesale pricing policy responds to calls from the industry and retailers for a level playing field when it comes to alcohol pricing. She said the pricing model was one of the 73 recommendations that emerged from the government's bid to modernize B.C. alcohol policies.

The liquor branch document said the 5,300 product price increase are small and may result from the weakening Canadian dollar and supply issues. But the report also said suppliers were increasing prices on 156 domestic products and 978 products from outside of Canada. None of the products were named.

"We want to avoid any excessive price increases being passed along to either industry or British Columbians at the till," said the document. "For those suppliers who have proposed significant price increases, LDB will continue to work with them."

Anton said the government still expects to take in about $1 billion in annual alcohol revenues once the reforms, including wholesale pricing, take effect. She said the government is in discussions with suppliers about their prices.

"It is the case that a few products will be going up, but some of that is the result of suppliers taking advantage of the government's changes on April 1 and raising their prices unnecessarily," she said.

"We are committed to a level playing field."

There are 196 government liquor stores, 670 private liquor stores, 221 rural liquor agency outlets and 12 independent wine stores in B.C.