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."
Niederhauser said he doesn't see any "earth-shattering" changes coming to state liquor laws when lawmakers convene next January. But Valentine said there could be a number of things focused on balancing accessibility to alcohol with public safety.
"We're going to have to recognize that restaurants are a legitimate place for alcohol consumption to occur and it has the least social cost," he said.
Lawmakers in a special session earlier this year voted to add 90 new restaurant liquor licenses and strengthen the state's efforts to curb both underage drinking and drunk driving.
At Thursday's conference, Jernigan said binge drinking is the biggest alcohol-related problem in the country, especially among high school students and college-age young people.
And he said it increases with household income. Utah, he said, has a lower prevalence than other states, but when binging occurs, it's more intense.
Niederhauser said binge drinking is something lawmakers need to look into.
"That has really come to light to me today. I'm really sheltered on this because I have not done that in my life. But I know it happens out there," he said.
Modern alcoholic beverages are of their essence marketed beverages, Jernigan said. "People drink the marketing," he said.
There is a direct correlation between the ads and what kids are drinking, he said.
"We're trying to reduce youth exposure to alcohol advertisements and we're not making the progress we should be making," Jernigan said.
Jernigan likened digital alcohol advertising to the "wild, wild West without a sheriff," should it continue unrestricted.
Young people are exposed to alcohol ads on television and radio, in magazines and increasingly through social media. In 2009, there were 315,581 alcohol commercials on TV, he said. Youth exposure to those ads has grown faster than adult exposure, much of it on cable non-sports programming.
"What parent, what teacher can possibly keep up with that amount of sophisticated messages about how great it is to drink that are reaching our young people every day on television alone," Jernigan said.
Social media have become a powerful tool for alcohol advertisers, he said. Companies post videos on the Internet that are too long or too explicit for television, and young people put up their own videos or photos of themselves drinking certain brands or displaying certain logos.
"It's the new word of mouth," Jernigan said.
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