Utah’s ad campaign to curb teen drinking isn’t showing much impact, state auditor reports

“Parents Empowered” program spent $2.7 million in state funds in 2022, for TV and radio spots and in-person events.

(Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services) The logo for Parents Empowered, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Service's long-running campaign to discourage underage drinking.

A $2.7 million taxpayer-funded ad campaign to curb underage alcohol use isn’t showing much of an impact on teen drinking, according to a new report by Utah’s state auditor.

The biennial report from Auditor John Dougall also says that Utah’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — the state agency that controls Utah’s liquor trade — can do better at keeping track of its inventory and violations to state booze laws.

Dougall and Bertha Lui, the financial audit director for the auditor’s office, presented the report to the DABS commission at its monthly meeting Tuesday. The commission also heard a response to the report’s findings from agency staff.

A major finding in the auditor’s report involves DABS’ “Parents Empowered” ad campaign, which received $2.7 million this year — and has spent around $2.5 million a year for the last five years — in an effort to prevent teens from drinking alcohol.

The current campaign, which can be heard and seen on Utah radio and TV stations, features parody versions of ‘80s family sitcoms and game shows and aims at delivering the message that parents can influence their under-21 children to avoid alcohol.

The auditor’s report showed the campaign had “indeterminate impact” on the levels of teen drinking in Utah. It cited data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which showed the percentage of Utah high school students who drink alcohol had only dropped from 15.8% in 2005, the year “Parents Empowered” began, to 10% in 2019 — a slower decrease than nationwide rates.

The report also examined what DABS has spent on “Parents Empowered,” which started at $1.9 million a year in 2007, dipped to just over $1 million in 2010, and has steadily risen to around $2.5 million a year since 2018.

“We were unable to conclude that greater spending on the campaign translates to a greater reduction in underage drinking,” the report said. “Also, we were unable to conclude that the Parents Empowered campaign directly drives the reduction in underage drinking rate in Utah.”

In its response, DABS argued that the independent research firm it uses to evaluate the Parents Empowered program shows the campaign has “made a positive difference” in reducing the rates of teen drinking.

“Trend data examining youth alcohol use clearly demonstrate a reduction in underage alcohol use in Utah over the course of the media campaign,” the research firm wrote in its findings.

DABS also defended the millions spent on the campaign, saying it wasn’t used just for advertising but also for “boots on the ground” events. The department said it has held more than 66 events statewide since 2019, the bulk of them in the high population zone along Interstate 15 through Cache, Weber, Davis and Salt Lake counties.

The department also argued that $2.7 million in this year’s budget is comparable to the $1.8 million spent in 2007, adjusting for inflation. Also, the campaign’s budget is less than $1 per Utah resident, DABS reported.

(Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services) An image from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services' "Parents Empowered" campaign, featuring advertising that parodies '80s family sitcoms.

Also in the report, the auditor’s office faulted DABS for not having a process in place to keep track of violations to state liquor laws. In the cases the auditor’s office cited, DABS took an average of 11 days to issue a notice after the first contact with the violator — a timeline that could be shaved down to a week, the report said.

Also, according to the auditor, DABS should be taking more responsibility in working with violators, instead of referring violations to the Utah Attorney General’s office. DABS responded that the department is limited, because of how the AG’s office interprets its own responsibility for enforcing liquor laws.

DABS also needs to do more, the auditor said, to educate local law enforcement about reporting liquor violations. Because of this, the report said, some violations are reported to DABS so late that the violations have to be dismissed. DABS responded that the department is scheduling more training sessions around the state this year and next.

Inventory problems, the auditor’s report said, are particularly bad at the state’s package stores.

The auditor examined inventory data at eight package stores during the first three months of 2022 and found “a negative inventory balance” — less product in the stores than there was supposed to be — in all eight stores on Jan. 1. Six of the stores were also short inventory on March 31.

Some of the store owners told the auditor’s office they had problems communicating with DABS, and with the automatic systems not providing the products they ordered.

DABS responded that there are many reasons for inventory discrepancies — including breakage, receiving errors, and “inventory shrink” (which can cover theft and product damage). The department reported that it is planning workshops to improve inventory management.

Lastly, the auditor’s report said liquor prices in Utah — already ranked fifth-highest among the 50 states for tax rates on hard liquor, according to the nonprofit policy group The Tax Foundation — aren’t high enough to cover handling expenses and capital costs.

For example, the report said, DABS charges a handling fee of $1.35 per case of booze — but the actual expenses (which include employees’ wages, freight, bond repayment for the main warehouse, and operations and management expenses) were calculated at $3.02 per case.

DABS responded that the handling fee for a case of alcohol had been held at $0.90 since 2012, and was only raised to $1.35 in 2021 because of concerns that suppliers were already in an economic pinch because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After Dougall and Lui made their presentation, commissioner Stanley Parrish asked the auditors if they were “comfortable with [DABS’] answers, or is there more required?”

Dougal said he was comfortable with the agency’s response, adding that he knows DABS is “fatigued.”

Commissioner Thomas Jacobson added, “we’re not done. … We know what you’re doing is important, and that you are outside eyes that we desperately need.”