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Leaders debate reality, perception of Utah liquor laws

Published: Sunday, Aug. 4 2013 11:23 p.m. MDT

A tug-of-war over Utah's liquor laws is brewing between those calling for fewer restrictions as a way to attract new business and those demanding tighter reins to prevent a host of social ills.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A tug-of-war over Utah's liquor laws is brewing between those calling for fewer restrictions as a way to attract new business and those demanding tighter reins to prevent a host of social ills.

Though not mutually exclusive, striking a balance between public health concerns and economic development is an ongoing challenge for lawmakers charged with "reasonably" satisfying the demand for alcohol in a state where most residents don't drink.

Some politicians and business leaders want to "normalize" state liquors laws to make them more like other states. Meantime, some public health experts say Utah is doing things right and should be held up as a model nationally.

Those competing interests often hitch their arguments to perceptions and not reality.

"Both sides have a tendency to have their own version of the facts and try to show the other that they're wrong," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who has spent more than 20 years in the Legislature working on alcohol policy.

Valentine ran what he calls the "grand compromise" bill in 2009 that eliminated membership requirements in private clubs, allowing what were Utah's version of bars to become more like bars across the country.

Now, he said he's seeing attempts to erode laws that distinguish restaurants from bars.

At a recent legislative committee meeting on alcohol laws, several people in the hospitality industry advocated changing Utah law governing the display and dispensing of liquor in restaurants, restrictions that have come to be labeled as the "Zion curtain."

"I think removing the Zion curtain would go a long way to restoring normalcy in Utah," Epic Brewing Co., owner Peter Erickson told the committee.

Paul Mero, executive director of the conservative Sutherland Institute, said a culture of drinking promotes liquor consumption just as a culture of dining promotes food consumption.

"The Zion curtain law simply reminds us that a culture of drinking is different than a culture of dining," he said.

Legal moves

The Republican-controlled Utah House overwhelmingly passed a bill this year to get rid of the display and pouring restriction but it stalled in the Senate, which the GOP also dominates.

Some restaurateurs also want to remove what they see as an awkward and possibly annoying policy requiring eateries to confirm customers intend to order food not just alcoholic drinks.

Words have become important in how the debate is being framed as one side uses terms like awkward, archaic, Zion curtain and a need for "normalcy" to push for changes in laws from a business perspective, while those worried about the social consequences of alcohol point to "lowest in the nation" to describe the positive impact of Utah's alcohol laws.

Utah has the lowest level of underage drinkers at 21.5 percent, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report, and has the nation's lowest number of adult drinkers, at 32 percent of Utah residents. Wisconsin has the highest, with 63.1 percent reporting they drank alcohol within the previous month.

"Keep a restaurant a restaurant. Keep a bar a bar," said Pat Bird, prevention program coordinator for Utah County Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment.

Although state law has always required food with alcohol in restaurants, the Legislature tweaked the language this year. The attempt at clarification, however, has led to more discontent.

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