SALT LAKE CITY — The sponsor of a controversial bill to change Utah law on the display and dispensing of alcohol said Monday a new state report on alcohol use is overdue.
Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said the report being compiled by the Utah Department of Public Safety may not help him get his bill through this session but will offer lawmakers a chance to measure the effects of liquor legislation.
"The Senate has taken a position to avoid any alcohol proposal, which is a little bit strange," Wilcox told reporters. But he said the Senate shouldn't ignore the need to spell out when the state report needs to be finished.
Department of Public Safety spokesman Dwayne Baird said the full report was turned in last Monday. But the department agreed to condense a portion of the report, and that should be completed by Tuesday afternoon, he said.
The purpose of the report, first requested two years ago, was "that we would finally be able to have an accurate, Utah-based set of data" on the impact on "the real issues that we claim to care about in alcohol policy."
Those issues include underage drinking and overconsumption, Wilcox said.
"Once we can address Utah alcohol policy with data from Utah, I think we'll be able to see whether or not the changes that we make in the Legislature actually do the things that we're claiming they're supposed to do," he said.
Utah's Alcohol Beverage Control Act looks out for the public interest of both those who drink alcohol and those "who do not wish to be involved with alcoholic products."
The act's public safety concern requires the state to "promote the reduction of the harmful effects of: excess consumption of alcoholic products by adults; and consumption of alcoholic products by minors,” the act states.
Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, has a bill to get rid of the barriers, often refered to as the "Zion Curtain" and the state's "intent to dine" rule that requires restaurants to make sure customers plan to order food and just not drink alcohol.
Powell, whose Wasatch and Summit counties district has a heavy tourism industry, said he has studied the issue for nearly a year and decided that the benefits of those two rules do not outweigh the cost and burden on restaurants and patrons.
He said he shares the state's goals to reduce underage drinking, overconsumption and drunken driving.
"But I don't believe that means the policies we've chosen are effectively tailored to those worthy ends," Powell said.
"I think we need to have a much fuller conversation about why we have chosen the particular restrictions we have chosen if we want to combat the evils of alcohol in society."
Wilcox said Utah should not be measuring itself against national statistics when it comes to alcohol because Utah has a "dramatically lower" rate of drinking.
That's the point, say supporters of current law. Utah has the lowest number of alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita in the country. It has the lowest prevalence of binge drinking among those 18 and older in the country. Underage drinking rates are half the national average.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the state's predominant religion, counsels its members not to use alcohol. It issued a statement just before the Legislature convened last week, saying Utah liquor laws don't need to be changed, including the separate preparation areas for alcohol and food.
The Department of Public Safety report would be more of a help to future legislatures, Wilcox said, especially because it should have been ready by last fall. Lawmakers need to take action this session, he said, to make sure action occurs in the future.
"We need to put some teeth in that, and put some more strict requirements that that needs to be produced," Wilcox said.
Whether the report provides data that helps make the case that the drink preparation barriers aren't having an impact remains to be seen.
"I suspect that it might at least to some extent," Wilcox said.
The Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank, put out a 10-page paper Monday defending the barrier laws.
"The 'Zion Curtain' does not prevent liquor consumption, but it does send a subtle signal that Utah restaurants are not bars, and in a desired culture of sobriety, the people don’t want their restaurants to become bars," Sutherland President Paul Mero wrote.
Mero argues that rather than the state having to show the benefits of the barrier, critics should have to prove that "liberalizing" liquor laws won't lead to "deleterious" effects for consumers and society.
"Prove that, cynics, and perhaps you will win the day," he writes to conclude his paper. "Until that day, the state will have to go with its exceptional results as liquor control policy reflects Utah’s solid culture of sobriety."