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In our opinion: Maintaining balance

By In Our Opinion

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, March 6 2014 6:05 p.m. MST

Almost all reasonable people agree that alcohol consumption imposes significant costs upon society. That’s why the Utah Legislature has a significant responsibility to seriously weigh the costs of any change.

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The negative public health impacts of alcohol — particularly overconsumption, drunk driving, and youth drinking — are well known. It is the job of the Legislature to find the right balance between restrictions that deter these ill effects, and yet which nevertheless permit adults to purchase an alcoholic drink with a meal.

We believe that Utah has found that appropriate balance. The state’s reasonable restrictions allow social drinkers to obtain a beverage while discouraging over-consumption, drunk driving, and youth drinking. Lawmakers should defeat HB285, which would allow restaurants to remove partitions that separate customers from areas where drinks are prepared.

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 said that they drank alcohol within the last month, almost half of Wisconsin's 63.1 percent.

Based on a 2012 National Highways and Traffic Safety Administration report, Utah had by far the lowest percent of alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities: 16 percent. The next lowest state was Kansas, at 24 percent, while the national average was 31 percent of driving fatalities being attributed to alcohol-impairment.

One core aspect of Utah’s balanced regulation of alcohol centers on the distinction between a bar and a restaurant. As public health officials in other states, including California, are discovering, it is vital to maintain this distinction.

There are at least four things that a restaurant must do to maintain such status:

Restaurants must cater to everyone, including children, and not just drinkers. This rule limits the hours in which restaurants may serve alcoholic beverages.

Restaurants may not exceed a ratio of 30 percent sales of alcohol to 70 percent sales of food. This rule ensures that restaurants do not deliberately or unintentionally morph into bars, whose primary business is the sale of alcohol.

Restaurants must maintain separate areas for the preparation and storage of alcohol. As with the 70-30 rule on the sale of food-to-alcohol, this separate area ensures that restaurants do not slip into becoming bars, where alcohol is the main attraction.

Restaurants may serve alcohol in conjunction with a meal, provided that the patron intends to dine at the restaurant. This also helps to preserve the character of the establishment as a restaurant, and not as a bar.

Each of these provisions work together. It would be hard to maintain this balance while still changing one of these provisions. Alcohol control officials in other states are coping with this precise problem: how to deter restaurants from “morphing,” and behaving more like bars.

In a presentation last year at the 16th annual Alcohol Policy Conference in Arlington, Virginia, officials from California outlined these consequences: “morphing outlets over-serve and under-enforce to generate health, safety and community problems,” including a “large number of police calls for service – drunkenness, violence, sexual aggression; neighbor complaints regarding noise, parking, public disorder, fights and vandalism, property destruction; underage drinking; crowd problems in high-density entertainment zones; [and] impaired driving and alcohol-related injury.”

The very cause of this problem, the experts said, is that “traditional restaurants evolve into settings for drinking, dining and entertainment.” Indeed, the fact that they are restaurants allows them to be generally welcomed by cities and economic development officials. Bars face appropriately higher scrutiny.

Alcohol consumption imposes significant costs upon society. That’s why the Utah Legislature has a significant responsibility to seriously weigh the costs of any change. They should avoid tinkering with success. They should not allow restaurants to become bars.

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