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Legal, Ethical and Policy Issues


In Canada, community service providers sometimes express the concern over the lack of regulation of private alcohol delivery services, noting that they are a  way for people to exploit certain older adults (particularly those who have serious alcohol problems and who have some degree of mental impairment). This  section describes some of the issues that arise.



Vulnerable Older Adults: The Case of 

Private Alcohol Delivery Services



Most people purchase their alcohol products at the local liquor store, wine store or off sales outlet and bring the purchase home. Others rely on private delivery services, on a regular or occasional basis, to bring the alcohol to them.

Delivery services are convenient, and may provide an additional element of safety (if the person is drinking at home, and has the alcohol delivered to the source, he or she is not driving). 


Who is Likely To Use Private Delivery Services?

There are several groups of people who may use private delivery services. They include people who:

(a)  just like the convenience and are willing to pay for it;

(b)  cannot easily get to liquor stores themselves because of a disability (usually a mobility impairment);

(c)  do not drive;

(d)  cannot easily get to liquor stores themselves because of where they live (out of town, miles from the closest store) or local weather conditions;

(e)  do not want to be seen in a liquor store (for religious or social reasons);

(f)    would be declined service at a liquor store (because of inebriation, impairment).


Older adults may be disproportionately represented among people in categories (b) to  (e).


Who Controls the Delivery of Alcohol to Private Residences?

The control over the licensing, distribution and sale of alcohol is the responsibility of one or more agencies and departments within each Canadian province.   A very quick glance at some provinces’ legislation and regulations  across Canada shows there is a lot of variation in the area of private alcohol delivery.

Alberta under its Gaming and Liquor Regulations  specifically provides for the need to obtain a delivery service license, which costs $200.  

It would appear that private delivery of alcohol is prohibited under the liquor control laws in Nova Scotia  (prohibitions on common carriers, under Liquor Control Act [RSNS 1989] Chapter. 260, s. 17 (2.1, and 2.2)). Manitoba prohibits private delivery by taxi cab drivers (s. 117(3)), but permits delivery by the regulatory body. 

Private delivery of alcohol is not regulated in British Columbia under the liquor control or liquor distribution legislation.  Instead, it is treated as a municipal licensing matter.  Companies may purchase a municipal business license to deliver alcohol to private residences.  Sometimes the licenses are issued as a courier service, or a commercial trucking business.  They can be added on to a taxi company’s permitted uses.

There do not seem to be any regulations over these particular services in most British Columbia municipalities at present. The amount charged varies from company to company, and depends on the item(s) being delivered. Advertising is often done in apartment building, handbills slipped under the door, poster in the elevator, as well as advertising in the Yellow Pages, e.g.  “Let Dial-A Bottle Lift Your Spirits”

Normally when people want to have the authority to sell alcohol, there is a procedure to screen them. A typical provincial licensing requirement is that they be of "good character and reputation." Obviously, there is no similar eligibility requirement for the simple delivery of alcohol. Market forces and competition would seem to be the primary control in the area.

Ontario has the most regulation in this area and this is a new development. Under new regulations,  Ontario operators will now be required to apply for a Liquor Delivery Service Licence, renewable every two years. Before making a purchase from a liquor or beer store, the licensee must have an order. Alcohol must be delivered on the day it is purchased and up to an hour after the store closes. Purchasers must sign a receipt. No liquor may be delivered to, or accepted by individuals under the age of 19, or to institutions such as addictions treatment facilities, hospitals etc. 

Operators must charge a minimum delivery fee ranging from $4 to $6 depending on the region. Advertising may indicate that the operator is licensed to deliver alcohol from a government store to a residence, the type of alcohol available for delivery, as well as contact information and delivery fees. More specific ads must be pre-approved by the AGCO (reference: Alcohol Policy Net Update, July/August/September 2001).


Are There Any Concerns about Private Delivery?

There are several potential areas of concern about private delivery services, including delivery of alcohol to people who are under age and delivery to people who are impaired. There are also potential collateral problems of bootlegging or exploitation.

Bootlegging, as used in this context, would refer to the re-sale of alcohol  without a licence, at an amount more than a “reasonable delivery charge” or outside of normal  service hours for liquor sales establishments. Bootlegging may or may not involve storage of alcohol.

This raises an interesting question: In what circumstances is private delivery really "just delivery" and in what circumstances is it a re-sale of liquor?


Should There Be Certain People to Whom Alcohol Should Not be Delivered?

 A.              Minors: Delivery to people who are under age tends to be the focus of most public and government concern about private delivery services. Each province has legislation prohibiting sales to minors.

Addressing the Concern: The delivery service may help assure proper delivery to people who are of legal drinking age by requesting proof of age at the time of delivery.  However, there are practical problems: if the delivery person is purchasing the alcohol beforehand, is he or she likely to turn the person down having already expended $20 for the bottle, let alone forfeiting the expected delivery charge.


B.              People with Mental Impairments:  The sale and purchase of alcohol may be considered both a contractual matter and a social responsibility. At a minimum contractually when buying alcohol, the person must know and understand what he or she is buying and the cost.  Liquor agencies are also required to not sell to people who are inebriated, reflecting a more general social responsibility to people where their judgment is likely to be impaired, as well as a responsibility to community safety.

In most cases where a person is declined service at a liquor store or other sales establishment, the decision about whether or not the person is inebriated is usually based on the person’s manners and behaviour (slurred speech, physical appearance- alcohol on breath, disheveled appearance etc.).

This “judgment call”  about whether or not to sell  the alcohol becomes harder when dealing with certain people:

-        a person with a brain injury,

-        a person who has communication problems- e.g. a person who has had a stroke, a person who has cerebral palsy,

-        a person who has alcohol related dementia

and in certain kinds of conditions (a brief point of sale contact, versus a long standing relationship where you know the person).  People may seem impaired when they are not,  and may not seem impaired when they really are. See alcohol dementia related below.


C.              Alcohol Dependent People in Recovery:  In some cases, a person in recovery makes a formal agreement with a counsellor. That agreement may be that the person will not drink, and will sever ties with those he or she would normally associate when drinking (bar friends, liquor delivery services).  The decision whether of not to honour this agreement would seem to rest with the individual. Others can influence the situation though.


The Role of Delivery Services

We tend to think of delivery service persons as passive actors (receive the order, deliver it to the home). That is not always the case. Sometimes the person actively solicits business from “regulars” (“Joe,  just thought I’d stop by. I haven’t seen you in a while. How are you doing? May I pick up anything for you?”). Some people might consider this as alcohol’s equivalent of a drug pusher.


Are There Special Considerations for Private Delivery to Older Adults?

Yes and no. 

No, in the sense that most older adults are responsible drinkers, and do not have a problem with drinking. They should not be treated any differently than other adults, when it comes to making use of conveniences such as private alcohol delivery.  It is very important to guard against paternalism and age discrimination.

Yes, there may be a need for special consideration of special sub-populations of seniors --specifically, those who have mental impairments that affect their ability to make decisions related to purchasing alcohol, and about who is “trustworthy” in providing services.


Private Alcohol Delivery:  Alcohol Related Dementia

First, it may be helpful to explain what dementia is. Dementia is a loss of mental function which affects some people as they grow older.  Eight per cent of all seniors have some form of dementia, and the rate increases significantly as one ages. So while 1% of people aged 65 have some form of dementia, approximately 1 in 3 seniors over the age of 85 have some degree of memory impairment from dementia. 

It is estimated that dementia affects over 300,000 Canadians aged 65 or over, and over 750,000 Canadians 65 and older will be affected by the year 2031. Alzheimer Disease is one of several forms of dementia. Alcohol-related dementia is another form.   It has been estimated that 20 to 25 percent of dementia cases are caused by alcohol-related neurotoxicity. [1]  While most people who have Alzheimer disease tend to be older (85+), alcohol-related dementia shows up at a much younger age (the people affected are about 10 years  younger, on average).


Alcohol-related dementia, in contrast to Alzheimer disease, appears to be a reversible form of dementia. In other words, if the person is able to abstain from drinking or significantly reduce the amount, the memory impairment may be reduced and can go away.



Can a Delivery Person Tell that an Older Adult Has Alcohol Related Dementia or Other Impairment?

In some cases it will be very obvious. In others it will be extremely difficult.  According to a recent study, memory impairment in people who have alcohol-related dementia appears to be mild and slowly progressive. [2] Moreover, their verbal intelligence and language skills are preserved.  In other words if you just talk with the person casually, you may not notice anything unusual.

Common deficits in people who have alcohol-related dementia include poor short-term memory. For example, if the adult paid a delivery person for the alcohol, and the person came back later in the day and said “You haven’t paid me yet”, the adult likely would not remember whether or not he or she had paid.  Even more remarkable, the person may not even remember whether or not they ordered the alcohol.  

The person also often has an impaired ability to think abstractly (e.g. planning to do something).  So,  while the person might want to stop drinking, he or she may difficulty carrying out the steps to achieve that (such as walking past the bar and not going in, or turning down an offer to have some alcohol delivered).

Completely independent of a general vulnerability that anyone might have as a result of being inebriated, this kind of memory impairment leaves the adult extremely vulnerable to financial exploitation when it comes to private alcohol delivery.  Reputable operators do not take advantage of this. However, treatment services for seniors who have alcohol problems find that some delivery services (or specific members of their delivery staff) are not reputable in this regard. 

Outreach programs for seniors who have substance abuse problems also find that financial abuse is quite common among their clientele, affecting at least 1 in 6 clients. Forms of financial abuse include, 

The amounts that the  senior “loses” in some cases have totalled in excess of $20,000. Legal remedies are seldom available to recover this money.

It is also important to recognize that while we tend to characterize the private delivery service as contractual relationship, that is not the way that the older adult often sees it, particularly where there is impairment. He or she is more likely to see this as a personal relationship: “This person is my friend. See how nice he is to me”. An unscrupulous private delivery person is able to take advantage of the isolation, and the physical or mental dependence of the individual.


Family Requests to Not Deliver

Bottle delivery service operators state that they occasionally receive calls from family members of older adults to not deliver to particular residence, and that a reputable delivery service will honour that request.  Sometimes the request comes from someone other than family, such as a service provider.


What is the Legal Status of this Request?

In most cases, where a family member is making the request, they are doing so without any specific legal authority to make decisions on the person’s behalf. In other words, the senior has not been declared mentally incapable of making these decisions. The family member is not the person’s legal guardian, and does not have other legal standing to speak on this senior’s behalf or “in their best interests”. 

However, on a practical basis (not wanting trouble) and a social responsibility basis (to not deliver to impaired persons), a reputable delivery service operator will accede to the request.  Practically speaking, the request also puts the private delivery operator “on notice” that the person’s judgment is being called into question.


Control Over Source

The question at a practical level, however, is 




[1]  Smith, D.M.& Atkinson, R.M. (1995). Alcoholism and Dementia. International Journal of the Addictions, 30(13-14), 1843-1869.

[2] Saxton, J., Butters, M.A.&Shelton, C. (1999). Alcoholism, Dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease: Neuropsychological Characteristics and Differential Diagnosis. St. Francis Journal of Medicine, 5(1), 72-77.


Page Last Updated:  November 10, 2001

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