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In our opinion: Lax enforcement, actions of few at fault, not Utah's liquor laws

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Assistant manager George Pence arranges the alcohol at a State liquor store in Salt Lake City, Utah, Thursday, May 27, 2010.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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Once again, a legislative audit has cast a cloud over the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. This time, auditors suggest the former director of licensing and compliance, Earl Dorius, may be guilty of a second- or third-degree felony for allegedly accepting free meals and gifts from a friend who owns eight establishments that have state liquor licenses.

Last year, an audit linked former executive director Dennis Kellen to possible criminal wrongdoing in connection with allegedly awarding tens of thousands of dollars in state contracts to his son's business, as well as for avoiding a competitive bidding process by splitting invoices into smaller amounts.

The current department director responded by saying the department has been moving quickly to change a culture that encouraged such things, and that policies, personnel and internal enforcement were being changed and strengthened. Indeed, we hope so. The problems that apparently existed for years within this department are an outrage and a disservice to Utah taxpayers.

It is worth repeating again, however, that the problems are due to lax enforcement and the actions of a few people. They are not evidence that Utah's long-standing policy of state control over alcohol sales and distribution has failed.

Quite the contrary, Utah's liquor laws work splendidly, fulfilling the intended purposes of making liquor available to those who want to consume it responsibly, while curbing excesses and dangerous behavior.

That was brought home forcefully a week ago when David Jernigan, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School for Public Health spoke to some members of the state Legislature. He is director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, and he had a lot of good things to say about Utah. To curb excessive drinking, he said, states should avoid privatization, regulate the outlets that sell alcoholic products and control the hours during which such things may be sold. The Beehive State does this and has the right model.

That is especially true today when producers use enticing advertisements to market their products, and when the products themselves are enhanced in ways to appeal to young people. The emergence of social media advertising will make efforts to discourage irresponsible consumption all the harder in the years to come. This trend is bound to spread personal misery and social problems as abuses become more widespread. In light of this, Utah can't afford to give in to pressures toward privatization.

The evidence legislative auditors found has been turned over the Utah attorney general's office, which says it is investigating. We urge a thorough and strict accounting for the evidence uncovered. Corruption at any level of government should not be tolerated. It also should not be confused as evidence the system of governance itself is incorrect.

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