In our opinion: Keep sensible restrictions on intoxicating beverages in restaurants

Published: Monday, March 11 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this June 1, 2011 photo, Chris Taketa looks for liquor stored in a walk-in freezer in the back of the Dojo sushi restaurant in Salt Lake City.

Jim Urquhart, Associated Press

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Retailers understand that shelf space is one of the most effective pathways to "mind space." National brands jockey for optimal positioning of their product on the shelves of grocery stores to help maximize profits.

Restaurant owners know that diners are far more likely to order a high-caloric dessert, even when they "really shouldn't," if a dessert cart laden with temptingly presented sugary delights, rather than a mere menu, comes into view.

So it is not surprising that restaurants eager to improve their margins through increased sales of alcohol find Utah's restrictions on the display and dispensing of alcoholic beverages a barrier to increased profits. Out of sight, out of mind.

And that is precisely the point.

Utah's laws don't prevent restaurant diners who want an alcoholic beverage with their meal from ordering a drink. But having reasonable restrictions on the display and dispensing of alcohol in restaurants helps to maintain a desirable distinction between restaurants and bars, shielding minors from the marketing associated with alluring displays.

What baffles us is why Utah's Legislature would choose to meddle with alcohol laws that have a proven track record of reducing underage drinking, alcohol abuse and alcohol-related accidents.

Utah enviably enjoys the lowest percentage of underage drinkers in the nation, at 21.5 percent, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report. Results from the same study show only 32 percent of Utah residents admitted to drinking alcohol within the last month, almost half of Wisconsin's 63.1 percent. And based on a 2011 National Highways and Traffic Safety Association report, Utah had the second lowest percentage of alcohol-related deaths in the nation.

Alcoholic beverages are mood-altering drugs that tend to harm the most vulnerable in society. Far too often its use leads to addiction, disease, and dangerous impairment of judgment and skill. The burden of proof for allowing increased opportunities to market and purvey this drug lies with those who seek to profit from this trade.

Consequently, it was disappointing to see the Utah House of Representatives move to loosen restrictions on display and dispensing in Utah's restaurants. We understand how effective those who stand to profit from increased consumption of alcohol have been at mocking what they flippantly call the "Zion curtain." If there is something irrational or silly about the current law it is not that it shields restaurant patrons from a proven technique to encourage increased consumption, rather it is that the law does not currently apply to all restaurants.

As the Utah Senate takes up this legislation this week, it would do well to remember that Utah's efforts to limit underage and excessive alcohol consumption harmonize nicely with the strategy of the National Prevention Council led by the Surgeon General. "Effective … excessive alcohol use prevention include(s) implementing policies to reduce access, identifying substance abuse early and providing people with necessary treatment and changing people's attitudes toward … excessive alcohol use."

Utah legislators have consistently understood the correlation between limiting alcohol marketing and reducing alcohol-related problems statewide. Legislators should not be embarrassed by innovative state policies that place a minor burden on purveyors while protecting vulnerable populations from exploitation. We trust the Utah Senate understands the importance of this vital public health concern and will act appropriately to preserve, and perhaps expand, Utah's sensible restrictions on the display and dispensing of intoxicating beverages in restaurants.

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