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Leaders debate reality, perception of Utah liquor laws

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

"We gave life to something that should never have been given life," said Tom Guinney, a partner in Gastronomy, Inc., which runs several popular Salt Lake Valley restaurants.

Visitors to Utah

Just last week, three executives from New Zealand in town for the outdoor retailers convention asked at Guinney's Market Street Grill, "Do I have to order food before I can get a drink?"

Guinney said patrons and servers shouldn't have to have that conversation.

"That is just catastrophically damaging," said Guinney, who has worked with state legislators on liquor laws for 30 years.

But Valentine said it was the restaurant industry that wanted the law to be clarified, and now it wants to remove it altogether.

"Here we are three or four years later trying to make restaurants into bars. It's very frustrating to be honest with you," Valentine said.

Guinney disagrees that restaurants would somehow morph into bars if restrictions on display and dispensing, as well as the intent-to-dine laws were repealed.

"You don't go into a restaurant to have a bar experience," he said. "A restaurant will never be a bar. People go into a restaurant to eat."

With the state out of restaurant liquor licenses last year, lawmakers in a special session adjusted the population-based quota system to add 90 new licenses — 50 full-service and 40 beer and wine only. At the same time, they raised permit fees 10 percent to fund four new liquor enforcement officers and more DUI patrols.

The licenses were needed to meet the demand from new restaurants, including several out-of-state chains that wanted to open in Utah, state leaders said.

More availability means more consumption, Bird said.

And that, he said, leads to more DUIs and underage and excessive drinking, which exacts human and monetary costs.

Alcohol shouldn't drive new business at the expense of public health, Bird said.

"We know we've opened up and relaxed our laws over the last four or five years. We're continually giving in to the economic development but we're not addressing the prevention side of things," he said.

Tougher laws?

Arguing it would reduce fatal accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board earlier this year called on all 50 states to lower the blood-alcohol level that defines drunken driving to 0.05 percent. Utah's limit is 0.08 percent.

The NTSB noted that more than 100 countries already have limits of 0.05 percent, including most countries in Europe, most of South America and Australia. When Australia dropped its blood alcohol level to 0.05 percent, there was a 5 percent to 18 percent drop in traffic fatalities in various areas, according to the NTSB.

Mero made that plea to the legislators in a meeting last month.

While Valentine said he finds it intriguing, he doesn't want to lead that effort, noting no state in the nation has the 0.05 percent standard.

Bird also favors a legislative proposal to match the state's beer tax to the consumer price index so it automatically adjusts with annual index levels.

"It's equitable," he said. People who excessively drink would pay more for the social costs associated with alcohol abuse, Bird said.

Mero said legislators should revisit liquor policy every five years or so "instead of allowing special interests to passively aggressively chip away at it" every year.

Those promoting economic development wrongly associate it with drinking alcohol, he said, adding that under Utah law the state may not promote or encourage the drinking or sale of alcohol.

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