The selection of 3.2 percent beer in Utah grocery and convenience stores will, later this year, start a rapid decline.
Consumers will see fewer options while businesses, especially in rural areas, could see sales revenue drop.
Without legislative action, Utah could soon become one of only two states that maintain the 3.2 percent beer mandate.
The Legislature is undecided on the issue. And a new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows their constituents also are split.
Among 803 registered Utah voters polled by Dan Jones & Associates, 49 percent support allowing higher alcohol beer in stores, while 45 percent oppose it. Six percent are unsure.
The survey, conducted Jan. 15-18, has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points.
When the responses were broken down by political affiliation and religion, Republicans and Mormons opposed 3.2 beer changes. Democrats and unaffiliated voters — as well as Catholic, Protestants and members of other faiths — supported an update.
Men and women had different responses, as well, with 59 percent of men supporting a move to high-alcohol beer, while 58 percent of women opposed the idea.
While Utahns may be split on grocery store beer, a majority — 53 percent — favors the state’s new drunken driving law, the toughest in the country. Forty-four percent oppose it.
The law that lowers the legal driving limit from .08 percent blood-alcohol content to .05 percent has especially high support among Republicans (64 percent) and “very active” Mormons (72 percent).
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who sponsored the bill in 2017, has said the law will get only minor tweaks before it goes into effect Dec. 30.
Back to beer
Utah’s 3.2 percent beer problem came about because three of the five states that currently require weaker grocery store beer updated their liquor laws to allow for higher-alcohol beer in stores.
Oklahoma’s new law goes into effect in October, while changes in Colorado and Kansas begin in 2019.
When that happens, Utah and Minnesota will be the only states that require 3.2 percent beer in grocery stores. Unlike Utah, though, the majority of beer sold in Minnesota is high-alcohol or “production line” beer sold in private liquor stores.
While 3.2 beer will not disappear in Utah, two of the largest brewers in the country — Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors — have said it no longer will be feasible to create weaker beer for such a small numbers of consumers. They say the Utah market is less than half of 1 percent of sales.
Beer selection, they say, could drop as much as 40 percent, going from hundreds of options and container sizes to a few dozen.
Dave Davis, president of the Utah food Industry Association, believes the state should increase the maximum alcohol content for grocery store beer. “We don’t have to be like everybody,” he said. “But let’s choose our quirkiness carefully.”
The increase could be a small one — moving the maximum allowed from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent. “We would still have the lowest cap in the country, but we would be able to capture about 94 percent of the products we currently offer,” he said.
Setting a 4.8 percent maximum does not mean all beer products in grocery stores would jump to that alcohol level., he said. For example, Bud Light would go from 3.2 percent to 3.4 percent. “That’s what Bud Light is in every other state in the country.”
Of course, a bolder option would be to allow grocery and convenience stores to sell all beer — including the higher-alcohol varieties that are available only in state-owned liquor stores.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, the two lawmakers who oversee most liquor-related legislation in the state, are aware of the problem, and the possible solutions.
But, so far this legislative session, they have not proposed an increase because of their hesitancy to make more changes to Utah liquor laws after a massive overhaul in 2017.
The “wait-and-see” approach worries grocery and convenience store owners, who sells more than 94 percent of all the beer in the state each year, said Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers.
“They are concerned about what the future looks like if the Legislature does not address the issue,” he said. “There are going to be unintended consequences if the state decides to do nothing.”
Allowing beer with even a slight increase in alcohol, however, is a concern for those working in the abuse-prevention field, said Susannah Burt, a prevention program administrator with the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
“We need to be thoughtful about what we change, even if we think it’s not a big deal, it can become a big deal,” she said. “’Small changes can lead to a shift in the landscape.”
She said maintaining the status quo is not about prohibiting alcohol, but rather limiting access to youths, whose brains are still developing. Teenagers will drink a whole container of beer — or several — whether it’s 3.2 percent of 4.8 percent alcohol.
”Keeping 3.2 beer in our grocery stores but allowing access to higher alcohol beer through our state liquor stores seems to be a good method for reducing access for youth and making sure communities are safe,” she said.