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.
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.
"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.
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.
"Arguing for liquor on the grounds that it increases economic development is promoting and encouraging its sale and consumption," Mero said.
Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said she's glad lawmakers are spending so much time talking about restaurants but they along with clubs and bars serve only 3 to 5 percent of the alcohol consumed in the state. She said the industry isn't the one they should look at to solve problems with underage drinking and DUI.
Convenience stores, grocery stores and the state own liquor outlets sell 95 percent of the alcohol in Utah.
Sine disagrees with those who say liquor policy isn't a business issue, noting that the restaurants employ 90,000 Utahns and serve 2.5 million meals a day.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker has wanted to change the city's liquor laws since taking office in 2008. He and the City Council considered a move last year to allow neighborhood bars under certain conditions a step in that direction.
One of the goals, city leaders said, was to make city alcohol laws more business friendly and less restrictive by letting zoning dictate locations for pubs and taverns.
Becker believes state liquor regulations should evolve in a way that provide appropriate public protections while creating an environment conducive to social drinkers, tourists and visitors to the city as well as business development, said his spokesman Art Raymond.
Standard Optical president Stephen Schubach served as co-chairman of a committee of Democratic legislative leaders appointed last year to study the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. It concluded that alcohol is overregulated and should be more not less accessible.
Because the safest place to drink is at home, he said, the state should build more liquor stores to keep people in their own neighborhoods rather than having to drive across town. It would accommodate consumers, while increasing revenue to the state that could be used for DUI or teen drinking prevention education, he said.
Restaurants are the next safest places to drink because food is served with alcohol, Schubach said. Lawmakers should lift the restrictions and other "archaic" regulations as well as make it easier for restaurants to get liquor permits.
"I think there's a perception that if government or the community makes this a little more easily obtainable, that's giving the go-ahead for everyone to be irresponsible is not true," he said.
Schubach said the state's "arcane" liquor regulations aren't good for business such as enticing conventions to the state.
"I think generally it has not helped at all to have these rules in place. I think we would attract bigger and better conventions if we were more amenable to the conventioneer," he said.
Guinney, whose restaurants serve but don't display alcohol, said the negative impact Utah's liquors have on economic development are overstated. But he said the intent-to-dine rule could hurt convention business.
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