Public health and alcohol: Expert calls Utah 'envy of the nation'

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 11:19 p.m. MDT

Utah has the lowest number of alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita in the country, the lowest prevalence of binge drinking among those 18 and older in the country, and underage drinking rates are half the national average. (Shutterstock) Utah has the lowest number of alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita in the country, the lowest prevalence of binge drinking among those 18 and older in the country, and underage drinking rates are half the national average. (Shutterstock)

SALT LAKE CITY — Some state lawmakers might make another run this year at tearing down the so-called "Zion Curtain" in Utah restaurants that's designed to keep liquor bottles and drink dispensing out of diners' view.

They will have the backing of Utah House Speaker Becky Lockhart, a Provo Republican who calls the barrier "weird." She said it's "one little thing" the state could change to make Utah more attractive to new businesses.

But supporters of current law say such change runs counter to both the spirit and practical application of the Alcohol Beverage Control Act, the Utah state code that is required to look 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.

Those points were highlighted last week by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which issued a statement saying separate alcohol preparation areas are part of an effective system for protecting against underage drinking, overconsumption and driving under the influence of alcohol.

Liquor laws are a perennial topic at the Utah Legislature. As the 2014 session opened Monday, there were several alcohol-related bills in the works, but Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said he doesn't expect any substantive changes this year. Most, if not all, liquor legislation in the state the past 20 years has run through the veteran senator.

But some inside and outside the Legislature have started conversations about privatizing liquor distribution and sales in Utah and lowering the blood alcohol level that defines drunken driving to 0.05 percent from 0.08 percent.

Utah best in nation

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.

"My attitude about alcohol in Utah is, I wouldn't mess with success," said David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

From a public health standpoint, he said, Utah is the "envy of the nation."

Jernigan attributed that in large part to Utah's religiosity but also to its "strong and intact" liquor control system.

But Lockhart said she's yet to see a study showing that the "Zion Curtain" has anything to do with the state's goals to reduce underage drinking, overconsumption and DUI.

State law requires restaurants to separate the pouring and mixing of alcoholic beverages from the dining area. Some eateries constructed partitions or walls, sometimes made of frosted glass, to comply, creating what has sometimes disparagingly come to be known as the Zion Curtain or Zion Wall.

"I have no interest in changing the fact that we're a control state. I have no interest in privatizing. I have no interest in putting alcohol other than beer in a grocery store. I have no interest in issues around heavy beer. I have no interest in making restaurants bars," Lockhart said.

"All I really want to talk about and learn about and come to terms with is this weird thing that we have that somewhere off in the distance in a restaurant there might be someone who is mixing a drink for a customer."

Lockhart, who says she has never had alcohol in her life, said she doesn't buy the argument that removing the partition would lead to privatizing alcohol sales in Utah.

Valentine's view

Valentine doesn't share Lockhart's view of having a separate area for alcohol storage and dispensing in restaurants. He disagrees with characterizations that its weird, pointing to the same law in neighboring Wyoming.

"If you go to Jackson Hole, you're going to have the same kind of situation as you have in Park City," he said. "I have not yet heard anybody call Wyoming's law Zion's wall or Zion's curtain."

Still, in Utah it's one of the reasons that the state's liquor laws get criticized.

"There is some extent to which you could say every state is quirky, and they're supposed to be," Jernigan said. "States are supposed to be able to experiment, to try different things to do what fits their specific situation."

Valentine said the separate preparation areas along with requirements to serve food with alcohol, limit hours of alcohol service and have a 70/30 food-to-alcohol sales ratio are intended to distinguish restaurants from bars.

He said those elements were watered down for a while but reaffirmed in 2009 as part of a legislative compromise that did away requiring bar patrons buy a private club membership to enter a bar.

"To me it's about having an operation that gives more of a restaurant kind of feel rather than a pushing of alcohol," he said.

Some restaurants, he said, want to ease the restrictions so they can have a dessert cart with alcohol to boost their sales.

"We really don't want to have increased sales of alcohol. We don't want to have promotion of alcohol," Valentine said.

What's working?

Valentine, who, like Lockhart, is a nondrinker, said he's not proposing major changes this year and wants to see how the current laws are working.

Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser, R-Sandy, said the majority of Republicans in the Senate have no appetite for changing the current alcohol laws.

Lockhart said companies considering coming to Utah first want to know about the state's air quality, education system and liquor laws. Removing the barrier in restaurants, she said, is a "minor" thing lawmakers could do to change people's perception of the state.

A new poll shows 42 percent of voters think the state's liquor laws create an unfavorable image of Utah, while 21 percent say they create a favorable image. But 34 percent of those surveyed say the impression is neither favorable nor unfavorable.

Dan Jones & Associates polled 627 registered voters this month for Weber State University and the Exoro Group, a Salt Lake public policy communications firm. The poll has a plus or minus 3.9 percent margin of error.

Melva Sine, though, sees the liquor barrier as a "little brown speck that media around the country like to peck at. We'd just like to get rid of it."

Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said it reflects negatively on the state. It doesn't make sense that an "obscene" wall somehow prevents the downside of drinking, she said.

"We're making criminals out of everyone who drinks alcohol," Sine said. "That's wrong. It's a legal substance."

In its statement, the LDS Church said each of the four components that distinguish restaurants from bars is essential in guarding against overconsumption, underage drinking and DUI.

"Why would we want to risk losing any of those benefits?" Elder D. Todd Christofferson, of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said in the statement.

"We need to stay where we are because we have established something that strikes the right balance between reasonable consumption by those who are in the age that is permitted to drink."

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company