Undercover visits mean less underage drinking in Utah
Utah restaurants did a better job of keeping liquor out of the hands of minors in 2013, in large part because they knew undercover agents would be visiting more often.
End-of-year statistics from the State Bureau of Investigations showed Utah restaurants served underage buyers during 16 percent of their undercover visits. Those numbers are an improvement from 2012, when underage buyers were served during 29 percent of the bureau's secret visits.
Still, the Utah figures are higher than the national sales rate of 12 percent.
"Our goal is to get it down to 10 percent or below," said Lt. Troy Marx, with the bureau's Alcohol Enforcement Team.
Sale to minors is considered a serious violation for a restaurant or bar. It can result in a 5- to 30-day license suspension or a fine between $500 and $3,000, or both. In addition, the employee who made the underage sale is fined.
Business owners are "all terrified of serving alcohol [to minors] because of the consequences," said David Morris, owner of Salt Lake City's Piper Down bar and a member of the newly formed advisory board to the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (UDABC).
While most business owners are diligent about compliance, Morris said, many individual employees don't understand the consequences of serving to underage buyers. It's one of the reasons the advisory board may recommend that the liquor commission raise the fines employees pay.
More officers • The drop in underage sales is directly related to an increase in the number of enforcement agents in the state, officials said.
A bill passed by the 2012 Legislature provided funding for four new agents whose primary responsibility is restaurant liquor compliance. The funding was part of a bill that added 90 restaurant licenses to the state pool ending a huge license shortage in the state.
There are now 19 full-time enforcement agents who monitor nearly 2,000 restaurants and bars for a variety of alcohol compliance issues, but they are especially focused on service to minors, Marx said.
When the new agents were added, those holding licenses were sent letters informing them that officers would be conducting more frequent undercover visits. Today, agents try to visit licensed restaurants and bars four times each year, significantly more visits than have been done in the past, Marx said.
National research shows that having at least four compliance checks a year is the most effective way to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors, said Art Brown, a volunteer with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD).
"It's better to do it regularly," Brown said. "It's fairer to the employees and owners and results in fewer citations. And that's what we are after, not selling to minors."
Bars and clubs • In addition to restaurants, the bureau conducts undercover visits at Utah bars and clubs.
Statistics for 2013 show that underage buyers were served during 14 percent of the visits. That's the same number as 2012, "even though we made a lot more visits," said Marx.
While the bureau makes occasional visits to grocery and convenience stores, most undercover visits to retail outlets are conducted by law enforcement in individual cities, he said.
Local law enforcement and the UDABC make checks at state liquor and wine stores.
While business owners may be fearful of being caught, the bureau is hoping to get rid of its "gotcha" reputation of the past. It offers quarterly open houses where restaurant and bar owners can come in and talk with officers.
"We are really trying to reach out to licensees," Marx said. "If they have questions, we'll come to their business and check things for them and answer questions. We're really trying to help them become compliant and avoid citations."