Utah alcohol laws hit the ‘sweet spot’ between consumer demand and health concerns, speaker says

Utah’s alcohol laws may seem too strict — at least to many people — when compared to those in other states.

But the Beehive State actually hits the “sweet spot,” Steven Schmidt, with the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, said Friday.

The state strikes a balance between consumer access to beer, wine and spirits, while also having rules to prevent underage consumption, overconsumption, drunken driving and other harms associated with liquor.

“For those that believe Utah is out of step or has gone too far," Schmidt told attendees at the annual Utah Legislative Alcohol Policy Summit, “they are wrong.”

Two Davis County lawmakers who oversee alcohol policy in the Utah Legislature — Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville — hosted the summit at the Capital along with the Utah Valley Drug Prevention Coalition.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) John T. Nielsen, chair of the DABC Commission, left, sits with Peter Erickson, co-owner of Epic Brewing Co., as they attend the Utah Legislative Alcohol Policy Summit at the Utah Capitol on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. The conference brings together state and national leaders who try to create laws and policies that balance consumer demands for alcohol while also trying to avoid societal costs of underage drinking, overconsumption and misuse.

The daylong gathering brought together state and national leaders — as well as alcohol producers and distributors — who heard about the latest research and statistics in hopes informing future discussions about alcohol laws.

“This is a complex area of policy,” said Hawkes, noting that he has been binge-watching the Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition” to better understand alcohol history in the United States. While the public television series documents events that happened nearly a century ago, he said, “it highlights the fundamental tension in alcohol policy" that still exists today — the need to balance access and social costs.

The issue hits home for Hawkes, who said he learned not long ago that his great-grandfather, a newly arrived immigrant from the Netherlands, had been killed by a drunken driver. That “reverberates through a family and generations,” he said. “That’s why it is incumbent on us to get it right and strike that balance.”

Utah is getting it right, according to Schmidt with the NABCA — which represents the 17 states (including Utah) that directly control the distribution and sale of alcohol.

He pointed to a study conducted by Timothy Naimi at Boston Medical Center that scored the 50 states — on a scale of 0 to 3. States with higher scores had stronger policies — such as higher taxes, restrictions on where and when alcohol is sold, limits on advertising and increased enforcement.

Utah scored about 2.5, putting it fourth highest, behind Oklahoma, Tennessee and Alabama. Kansas and Washington had similar scores to Utah.

South Dakota had the most lenient policies, scoring under 1, followed by Wisconsin and Iowa.

Higher alcohol policy scores, Schmidt said, represented stronger policy environments and were associated with less adult binge drinking and accounted for a substantial proportion of the state-level variation in binge drinking among U.S. states.

Katherine Karriker-Jaffe with the Alcohol Research Group, said states with higher scores also had fewer “secondhand harms” from alcohol use, which range from lack of family finances and ruined property to harassment.

In states with restrictive alcohol polices, she said, “the odds of secondary harms were reduced by 16 percent."

In a couple of weeks, Utah will loosen one of its longtime alcohol rules by allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell stronger beer — 4% alcohol by weight, up from the 3.2% it previously permitted — starting Nov. 1.

At the same time, the state also has the toughest-in-the-nation DUI law, with a blood alcohol content limit of 0.05 instead of the more common 0.08.

Several times during the day, speakers compared the nearly century-old debate about alcohol rules to the current push to regulate marijuana.

After Prohibition, the federal government decided that “the folks making money from alcohol needed to be regulated," explained Paul Pisano, with the National Beer Wholesalers Association. “It’s the exact same debate we are having with marijuana today.”