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SALT LAKE CITY — Statistics clearly show Utah's alcohol laws make the state a safer place and shouldn't be changed, the LDS Church said Tuesday.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released the lengthy statement in the newsroom section of LDS.org six days before the start of the 2014 Utah legislative session. It says that while Utah's laws sometimes inspire ridicule, their benefits are worthwhile.

For example, Utah has the lowest number of alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita in the country.

"We think we've struck in Utah a good balance between the reasonable availability of alcohol and limiting these negative consequences and social costs," Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in a 10-minute video interview released with the statement.

A whiteboard video animation also accompanied the online release of the statement. It states that Utah's laws are "reasonable controls over alcohol" and "crucial safeguards that have proven effective." It ends with the question, "Why try to fix something that isn't broken?"

The statement says "the church does not contest the fact that alcohol is socially acceptable in our society and should be available to those who want it," but it maintains the church has a right to express its views and engage in discussions about important social issues such as alcohol.

Social costs

The nation continues to grapple with the social costs of alcohol. The CDC reported in August that drinking carries economic costs in states and communities. Its survey of academic studies and statistics showed that excessive alcohol consumption costs society $1.91 per drink, for an annual national total of $223.5 billion.

The median cost for states is $2.9 billion. Utah's costs were the lowest, at $1.47 billion, but the CDC said those figures mean the cost of excessive alcohol use for states is on the same level as the cost of smoking or Medicaid.

The study found that 40 percent of those costs are paid by governments. In Utah, 45 percent of the costs of excessive alcohol consumption is borne by government, the highest rate in the nation.

Elder Christoffeson said the church has particular concern about three social costs related to alcohol — abuse or overconsumption, underage drinking and driving while intoxicated.

In each case, Utah is doing either better than the rest of the country or better than a majority of states. Underage drinking in the state happens at half the national average. Fatalities due to drunken driving account for 16 percent of Utah's driving fatalities, again about half the national average. The CDC found in 2010 that Utah also had the lowest prevalence of binge drinking in the nation.

"In Utah, we have the lowest number of traffic fatalities (per capita) related to drunk drinking in the country," Elder Christofferson said. "We have the lowest prevalence of binge drinking for those 18 and older in the country. And we always rank among the lowest in terms of DUI arrests. Why would we want to risk losing any of those benefits that have come with the regimen we now have in place for alcohol consumption and regulation? We're really doing better here than most places, most jurisdictions. If we begin to go in the direction they have, it's unreasonable to expect we won't have the same outcomes."

Religious freedom

Tuesday's statement said Utah's alcohol laws "are based on well-reasoned and sound public policy considerations adopted by Utah’s Legislature," not LDS doctrine on alcohol consumption. Latter-day Saints are instructed not to drink alcohol as part of "The Word of Wisdom" found in the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of LDS scripture.

"Some have supposed that the church takes a position on alcohol regulation in Utah because it wants to impose its beliefs or practices on other people," Elder Christofferson said, "but there's really no point in that. That wouldn't benefit us in any way."

The church's political neutrality policy states the church is "neutral in matters of party politics." However, it reiterated Tuesday that it reserves the right to speak out on broader moral and community issues separate from party politics.

"Our default position as regards legislative issues is to not take a position," Elder Christofferson said, "but when there are moral issues we feel are significant or matters that may affect our ability to function, we are as entitled as anyone to weigh in and to make our voice and position heard."

Last year, the church released a whiteboard video animation that illustrated the policy and the difference between remaining neutral in party politics and engaging in discussions on moral issues.

In the video, the narrator asks: "What about speaking out on community and moral issues if they're not about party politics? Of course that's OK. It's the long-held right of all religions to have a place in the public square. Like many of those faiths, the church may choose from time to time to join the discussion on moral issues that it believes could impact society."

Allowing churches and faith organizations to give voice to their views is important, said Matthew Franck, director of the Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution, at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.

"Churches are in the morality business," Franck said. "We tread on dangerous ground for religious freedom if we say to church leaders, 'Go away, you're trying to impose your religious beliefs,' when in fact they are making moral arguments.

"Whether they're right or they're wrong, the church has every right to be in the public square."

Franck said the church's effort to build a public policy case for its support of Utah's alcohol laws is wise.

"The church is perfectly free to make arguments about this in the public square as a moral and practical matter," he said. "And it's fine to rely on a frankly religious point of view or religious language. But some who aren't LDS won't listen to that, so it's smarter for the church to not make arguments based on the Doctrine and Covenants but on arguments about public health ramifications and public transportation ramifications."

Effective strategy

Both Elder Christofferson and the whiteboard video rejected the idea that Utah's laws are "weird" and should be "normalized." The whiteboard video specifically named nine states with tougher alcohol restrictions than Utah or alcohol laws unique to their state histories and cultures.

In 2010, the CDC published a guide called "Reducing the harms from drinking too much by limiting access to alcohol." The guide relied on the independent U.S. Task Force on Community Preventive Services, which found effective strategies like increasing alcohol excise taxes, limiting the days or hours alcohol can be sold and regulating alcohol outlet density reduced excessive drinking and cost related to it.

Elder Christofferson said the apparently strong outcomes from Utah's alcohol laws are worth any criticism.

"So what if we're fodder for a few jokes and ridicule on late-night TV?" he said. "To me that's a very small price to pay for one less family that lost their wife and mother in a drunk-driving accident, or one less teenager who's become addicted to alcohol and all the poor decisions and problems that flow from that."