The small-government, economy-driven Utah Legislature should let grocers sell wine, Robert Gehrke argues

Most U.S. states allow grocery stores to sell wine. If we’re smart, we can join them without sacrificing safety.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new Taylorsville liquor store on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

With everything going on in the world — a refugee crisis in Afghanistan, a pandemic pretty much everywhere, and Real Housewives of Salt Lake City returning next week — perhaps this isn’t the most pressing issue, but I think its one whose time has come: Utah should allow wine to be sold in grocery stores.

You’re probably thinking: Gehrke’s drunk. The Legislature won’t do that. You’re probably right.

But consider the benefits. For Utah drinkers — a group that is growing fast — it would remove the headache of having to plan dinner parties or the like around a trip to the liquor store — making sure that the hours haven’t changed or that stores aren’t closed because of a holiday.

For the small-government libertarians in the Legislature — and there are a few — it would reduce the level of government micromanagement and intrusion in the lives of citizens.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

And there could be some measure of economic benefit from loosening the law. If you’ve talked to tourists visiting Utah or people who have just moved here, the complaint you hear most often about Utah’s liquor laws is frustration at not being able to get wine in grocery stores.

Right now more than 30 states allow wine in grocery stores. We’re not freakish, but we are in the minority.

It’s been a while, but several years ago a poll found that nearly 7 out of 10 Utahns believed that the state’s liquor laws hindered economic development and tourism.

The pushback, of course, will come from those doom-and-gloomers who trot out the same well-worn — and often effective — arguments whenever we discuss making Utah’s alcohol policy slightly less restrictive: “Think of the children! Think of the carnage on our roads!”

Since 2009, Utah has gradually — very gradually — liberalized its liquor laws.

We’ve done away with the private club membership requirement, allowed for stronger pours in bars and restaurants, done away with the so-called Zion Curtain intended to shield young eyes from drinks being poured, allowed for stronger beer to be sold in grocery stores.

We’ve also, in that time, seen more avenues for advertising alcohol products, and have a wider array of products available in the form of things like seltzers and hard lemonades.

What we haven’t seen is an increase in youth consumption. Just the opposite.

Annual data from the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health shows that the percentage of kids who report having had alcohol in their lifetime is 40% lower than in 2009 and portion of kids who have had alcohol in the past 30 days has fallen by half in that span.

When kids do drink, they typically get it at a party, from a parent or family member or a friend over 21. They do not buy it themselves at a store. That’s because, the report shows, the compliance rate for stores when it comes to not selling to youth is over 93%, the highest in at least 13 years.

In the last decade, Utah has seen more DUI enforcement and decreasing arrests (except for an odd increase in 2020, despite Covid) — an indicator that the fewer people are actually drinking and driving, Ed Ho, a researcher who compiles Utah’s data, told legislators in June.

The number of arrests for public intoxication have also steadily gone down, among both youth and adults. And logically, the people who are problem drinkers are unlikely to opt for a nice 2015 cabernet sauvignon when cheaper, more potent options are available.

When you drill down on it, the primary fears that are always cited by opponents of liberalizing Utah’s liquor laws — that kids will drink more and drunk driving will increase — are not borne out in any way by the data.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the state not regulate wine sales, just change where it’s allowed to be sold.

The state can still maintain control of what products are sold. They can figure out an appropriate amount of tax on the products, so the state will still get some money from it, despite not having the overhead of stocking it in state-run stores. We can’t damage the state’s $500 million cash cow.

Laws can be written to require the products to be sold in a room or aisle where children aren’t allowed, if that’s deemed necessary. Sales could be limited to just grocery stores and not convenience stores. You want to limit the alcohol content so grocers aren’t selling fortified wine? Fine. There are lots of options if we’re smart about it.

I’m not willing to put a bet on any of this happening any time soon. Any reform measure, even a relatively small one, takes years to work its way through a wary Legislature.

But we have an opportunity to simplify life for a significant segment of Utahns, help bolster Utah’s image and potentially its economy in a rational and reasonable way, all without jeopardizing the health of children and the safety of Utahns writ large. It is a discussion worth starting.