Must the Legislature start tinkering with Utah's liquor laws again?

If so, it should be in the direction of making those laws more enforceable rather than in the direction of loosening them out of the mistaken notion that this is the way to more tourists and more prosperity.In any event, an important decision is at hand. The Alcoholic Beverage Review Task Force is in the process of drafting some recommended liquor law changes for the 1990 Legislature. As part of that process, the task force is asking for input from Utah organizations and individuals.

As Utahns in general and the task force in particular consider this always sensitive but important topic, they would do well to keep some key facts and figures firmly in mind:

-The problems of alcohol abuse in the United States are so acute that "if we could successfully address the alcohol problem in society today, many of the other health and social problems we face would be dealt a considerable blow." So says Dr. Otis R. Bowen, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

-Overall consumption of alcohol has an impact on the incidence of alcohol-related deaths, and alcohol abuse is directly related to alcohol availability. In other words, controlling the availability of alcoholic beverages can directly reduce alcohol abuse. So say studies by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

-Children almost never try cocaine, crack, or heroin without having first used gateway drugs, of which alcohol is the most widely used. So argues Dr. Robert L. DuPont, professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, who notes with special alarm that those most vulnerable to alcohol abuse and other drug addictions are the very young.

-Just as alcohol is often the gateway to more dangerous drugs, beer is often the gateway to wine and hard liquor. Yet advertising messages encouraging and glamorizing alcohol abuse overwhelm educational campaigns about the dangers of drinking. So reports Patricia Taylor, director of the Alcohol Policies Project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She goes on to note that American youngsters see more than 100,000 beer commercials on TV before they are of legal age to drink.

-Research demonstrates that as appropriate control measures are put in place - such as raising the legal drinking age, increasing prices, limiting locations and hours of sale, and restricting alcoholic beverage marketing and promotion - consumption of alcoholic beverages by youth declines.

These recently expressed views on a national problem are among a myriad of informed conclusions that long ago found expression in the principles adopted by the Utah Legislature to minimize alcohol abuse and to control, but not prohibit, alcohol consumption.

When the Utah Legislature enacted the Liquor Control Act and, later, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act, a central purpose was to "provide a system of state control of the use of alcohol and alcoholic beverages." These laws, which have the overwhelming support of Utah's citizens, empowered the state, "for the protection of public health, peace, safety, welfare, and morals," to service the public demand for alcoholic beverages while neither promoting nor encouraging their sale. These laws mandate that all profits from the sale of alcohol inure to the state to cover the increased social costs that inevitably accompany the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

These basic principles of alcoholic beverage control have served Utah well. They also reflect a commitment to a pluralistic society that includes both drinkers and non-drinkers.

Utah ranks as the lowest state in the nation in per capita consumption of alcohol. Even so, the total cost of alcohol abuse in the Beehive State has been estimated to exceed $250 million annually because of alcohol-related deaths, illness, accidents, crime, and lost productivity. Nationwide, the costs exceed $120 billion annually.

Alcohol is the most widely used - and abused - drug in America. Its use devastates families and contributes to birth defects, mental illness, accidents, family violence, teenage suicide, and homelessness.

One of the saddest statistics associated with alcohol consumption is that among this nation's 13-million alcoholics are three-million youths between the ages of 14 and 17. Moreover, a national Weekly Reader survey found that more than 30 percent of elementary school fourth graders feel pressure to drink alcohol.

In addition, auto accidents, suicide, and homicide - the three leading causes of death among youth ages 16 to 21 - are all closely related to alcohol consumption.

In view of mounting and overwhelming evidence, the issues of the availability of alcohol and its consumption are among the most pressing and valid public health and public safety concerns. Utahns have long recognized these concerns, and these concerns have been incorporated in Utah law.

The Deseret News supports the full intent of Utah's alcohol laws, which accommodate those who desire to consume alcoholic beverages while providing a way in which this may be done without offending the majority of Utah's citizens who do not imbibe and without unwisely enlarging the possibility of alcohol-related tragedy that too often engulfs individuals and families, drinkers and non-drinkers alike.

True to the spirit of those laws, consumption for those who choose to drink should be regulated and the harmful effects of overindulgence prevented. In our view, no imagined social or economic benefit could ever be worth the consequences of increased alcohol abuse that would follow in the wake of unregulated or loosened distribution, promotion, and consumption of alcohol.