Utah lawmakers should resist the urge to increase the alcohol content of beer for sale in Utah from 3.2 percent by weight to 4.8 percent.
It may seem unsurprising for this editorial page to take such a position, given that this newspaper is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that the church has publicly opposed this effort. But in fact it is consistent with the editorial position this paper has pursued for decades, which is to urge laws that allow for responsible alcohol consumption while minimizing social harm.
That position has been partly responsible for Utah having among the lowest rates of impaired driving fatalities in the nation, a record that must not be put in jeopardy.
The impetus for SB132, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, seems to be a concern that major national breweries no longer will make 3.2 percent beer available for Utah retailers because Utah is one of only two states left with such a requirement, and because Utahns represent only one-half of 1 percent of beer drinkers in the United States.
But this isn’t the first year Utah lawmakers have heard that argument, and yet retail outlets, from grocers to convenience stores, still offer plenty of 3.2 beer from large and small brewers. The supply crisis never seems to come.
Meanwhile, we assume local brewers wouldn’t mind if the big companies left the state, leaving them with a larger market share. The answer to any such perceived crisis lies in basic economics. The free market has a way of filling a supply void when demand still exists.
More importantly, however, increasing the alcohol content by 50 percent would come with negative social costs, and it would be inconsistent with other recent legislative actions.
At the beginning of this year, Utah enacted a .05 percent blood alcohol limit for drunken driving, the strictest in the United States. That limit is consistent with what is enforced in much of the free world, especially in some European countries where drunken driving has become rare as a result. The intent was to lead the way for other states to pass similar laws, making roads safer from coast to coast.
However, responsible Utah drinkers who may be used to consuming a certain amount of beer and staying within that limit would find themselves impaired much sooner with heavier beer.
More worrisome, teenagers prone to reckless behavior also would find themselves inebriated much faster. As a result, they would become much more of a danger on the roads, and their developing minds would be more prone to the long-term damage studies have linked to underaged drinking.40 comments on this story
It is instructive to note that this bill did not come about because of a groundswell of concern among drinkers in Utah. Rather, it seems to be a manufactured crisis, led by beer companies who have a financial stake in providing heavier beer.
No one has yet provided any credible evidence that Utah consumers are being harmed in any way by the 3.2 percent restriction. Even if major companies were to withdraw from the state, which they are not doing, the free market would quickly fill the void.
Unfortunately, SB132 passed the Senate Business and Labor Committee last week. For the good of all Utahns, lawmakers need to reject it before it goes any further.