PROVO — A summit on alcohol policy Thursday featuring national experts on the issue affirmed for some influential state lawmakers that Utah's restrictive liquor laws work.
And any attempt to relax those regulations in the near future appears dead on arrival.
"You all in Utah have some problems, but you're doing a heck of a job," said David Jernigan, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School for Public Health. "Share your story."
Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, talked about alcohol policy from a public health perspective. He outlined ways in which states can curb excessive drinking, including increasing taxes, avoiding privatization, regulating the number of outlets and limiting days and hours of liquor sales.
"Alcohol taxes save lives," he said.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who often takes the lead on liquor legislation, said national studies cited by Jernigan and others verify Utah has the right alcohol-control model.
"Utah's intuitive ideas are actually backed up by scientific data," Valentine said. "It gave us a point of reference that what we're doing in Utah is actually working."
The Utah Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment invited lawmakers, lobbyists, government officials and others to the one-day conference. In addition to Jernigan, presenters included the National Beer Wholesalers Association, the Wine Institute and academics — organizations and individuals who often don't see eye to eye.
"We're not going to put everyone in a ring," Utah County Commissioner Doug Witney said from the outset. "We're not going to fight."
The goal of the conference was to foster a collaborative approach toward effective policies for public health, safety and business, he said. Discussions — all congenial — centered on research about the risks and benefits of privatizing alcohol sales, the impact of alcohol policies on economic development and other issues such as alcohol taxes.
"The alcohol industry and public health need not be adversaries," said Paul Pisano, vice president and general counsel of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
Rep. Brian Doughty, D-Salt Lake, disagreed with Valentine that all Utah's liquor laws are working, citing the lack of available restaurant and bar licenses as a particular problem.
"Personally, I would favor privatization of retail. I would love to walk into a Smith's and buy a bottle of wine. That's probably not going to happen soon," he said.
Not as long as Utah Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and Valentine hold powerful positions in the Legislature.
"I think privatization is not something Utah will address in the near future," Niederhauser said, adding that even if a legislator raises the issue, "I don't see it passing."
Jernigan said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies show sales of a particular alcoholic beverage increased 44 percent when its sales were privatized.
Steve Gross, Wine Institute director of state relations, said he doesn't think privatizing wine sales would have a major impact on consumption, noting that wine is mostly served with food in restaurants.
When Washington state deregulated its alcohol industry earlier this year, liquor outlets swelled from 300 to 1,400, said Steve Schmidt, National Alcohol Beverage Control Association vice president for public policy.
States that have deregulated their alcohol industries have lost money in the long run, he said.
"From a purely revenue perspective, it's a difficult case to make," Schmidt said. "But it clearly has generated a lot of conversation."
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