July 1, 2012

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Article

Utah’s Alcohol Problem

Do the State’s Byzantine Laws Stifle Economic Development?

Gaylen Webb

July 1, 2012

“Am I frustrated? Yes. I have a new, 35-acre retail development coming in and I would like to see these restaurants come in, too,” he says. “The problem with over consumption of alcohol doesn’t exist in restaurants. It’s the convenience stores and liquor stores where people are buying beer and alcohol in volume. Restaurants are required to serve food with the alcohol, and they are limited in how much alcohol they can serve.”

With the DABC sporting a waiting list of more than 30 restaurants, the liquor-license bottleneck became such a crisis that Gov. Gary R. Herbert convened a special session of the legislature to, in part, issue additional licenses. In June, the legislature approved an additional 50 full-service and 40 limited-service licenses for restaurants.

The extra licenses may prove a boon to Will Miller, CEO of the restaurant chain Paradise on Wings/Wing Nutz, who feared his plans for expansion in Utah would by stymied by a lack of available licenses. With 14 current Utah locations and several more in the works, Miller says, “The Utah restaurant industry employs tens of thousands of people, and the state’s restrictive liquor laws prevent the industry from growing.”

A Balancing Act
Utah’s strict alcohol regulations date back to the creation of the Utah Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (DABC) in 1935, two years after the 21st Amendment ended prohibition and gave states the right to choose their own systems for the control and distribution of alcoholic beverages. According to the DABC, the philosophy of the Utah legislature at the time was that liquor should be made available to responsible adults who want to imbibe, but the sale of liquor should not be promoted.

The philosophy hasn’t changed much since 1935. An effort toward greater liquor law liberalization actually started under former Gov. Jon Huntsman, but the pendulum has since headed the other direction, in some cases with laws even more strict than before.

This year State Representative David Litvack sponsored a bill in the legislature to create a “blue ribbon commission” to study ways to make the DABC more efficient. It didn’t pass. The idea behind his bill was to look at the regulatory environment around the liquor laws and assess whether they really help accomplish the policy goals or if they are simply rules for the sake of rules.

“Do the regulations serve their purpose or are they counter intuitive?” Litvack asks. “Why would we treat liquor-related businesses any differently than any other business? They shouldn’t have rules that make their lives harder,” he continues. “It is not a big stretch to say our alcohol regulations are prohibitive and dampen economic development.”

Would the liberalization of Utah’s liquor laws conflict with the state’s moral fiber?

“In a large measure, our state leaders look at the consumption of alcohol as immoral. Now, everyone I have ever spoken with completely agrees that underage drinking and over consumption are illegal. And we want to do everything we can to ensure that underage drinking and over consumption are managed and really taken seriously in Utah,” says Beck, “but for the average person, a glass of wine after a full day at a trade show is not immoral and it’s not illegal.”

Beck surmises that Utah’s liquor laws are what they are because the majority of the state’s legislators don’t understand the issues related to the availability of alcohol. “Not that the legislators are flawed, ignorant or have their heads in the sand. It’s just not who they are; they don’t experience it… Culturally, they have no connection to this kind of socializing, so when it gets down to a discussion about alcohol, it becomes a moral discussion, which is a very difficult way to approach it.”

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