As the Utah Legislature begins its annual session, there is pressure for lawmakers to modify the state's control of alcohol. Audits last year uncovered such gross mismanagement at the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control that many legitimately question whether the state's current structure for alcohol control is the right one.
But the question of how to clean up DABC is now being mixed with fundamental questions about state control of alcohol in general. Some Utahns are asking why a state that generally supports free-market concepts of consumer sovereignty and limited regulation continues to exercise such strict control over alcohol.
A primary reason for such control is that overconsumption of alcohol is a widespread, dangerous and costly problem that can be addressed effectively through government controls on distribution.
Indeed, as national experts grapple with how to reign in the devastating fiscal and personal costs associated with problem drinking, increasingly they are recommending the very approaches that Utah has used successfully for decades to limit overconsumption, while also meeting the needs of responsible adults who desire to consume alcohol.
If alcohol were an ordinary consumer good, it would be irrational for government to play a significant role in its distribution. But alcohol is not an ordinary good. It is a mood-altering substance that, when abused, significantly impairs judgment and the coordination of motor skills.
Because of these qualities, every state regulates alcohol in some measure. And every state wrestles with how to pay for the costly secondary effects of alcohol overconsumption, including (but not limited to) injury, disease, accidents, violence, unplanned pregnancy and fetal alcohol disorders.
Indeed, national public health experts are alarmed by the health and safety risks associated with overconsumption of alcohol. Just this week, the Centers for Disease Control issued a major new report finding that one particularly dangerous form of overconsumption — binge drinking — is far more prevalent, frequent and intense than previously known. On average, one in six U.S. adults binge drink. They do so, on average, four times each month. And when they do binge, they consume about eight drinks at a time.
If binge drinking were merely a private behavior with no social costs, perhaps society could look away. But the CDC data indicate that binge drinking "causes more than half of the 80,000 deaths and three quarters of the $223.5 billion in economic costs caused by excessive drinking."
The CDC estimates that in 2006, binge drinking cost federal, state and local governments about 62 cents per drink. But in that same year, governments only recouped about 12 cents per drink in alcohol-related taxes.
And although all socioeconomic groups are affected by binge drinking, the poor and the elderly binge drink the most often.
In today's Deseret News, news analysis from Eric Schulzke suggests that a key tool for regulating the incidence of alcohol abuse is found in alcohol pricing.
Even small decreases in alcohol prices can lead to significant overconsumption of alcohol among problem drinkers.
Because overconsumption of alcohol is more widespread, costly and dangerous than most imagine and because the impacts are felt disproportionately by some of the most vulnerable members of society, the CDC's Task Force on Community Preventative Services has recommended the following interventions (among others) as sensible alcohol regulation:
"Limit the number of retail alcohol outlets that sell alcoholic beverages in a given area."
"Maintain existing limits on the days and hours when alcohol is sold."
"Increase the price of alcohol."
"Avoid further privatization of alcohol sales in states with government operated or contracted liquor stores."
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The CDC appreciates that these specific controls — the very kind of policies that Utah enjoys — are not retrograde ideas. To the contrary: This board of experts, relying on data and analysis, considers these controls the most forward-thinking and effective ways to redress the serious health and safety concerns that are silently ravaging the most vulnerable individuals in our society.
We deplore the corruption at DABC and urge lawmakers to quickly sanitize its operations. But we would further urge lawmakers to not confuse anti-corruption efforts with privatization.
The basic framework of our liquor laws has given Utah an exceptional record of public health and safety with regard to the dangerous and costly effects of alcohol abuse. That framework deserves at least the same respect from our elected officials as it does from the nation's public health experts.