As Utah lawmakers begin the 2019 legislative session, they may be forced to finally confront one of the state’s most notorious legal relics. Utah remains one of only two states in America to forbid grocery convenience stores from selling beer containing more than 3.2 percent alcohol. Any beer with a higher alcohol content — which, in this era of craft brewing, is most modern beers — can only be sold at state-run liquor stores. Utah legislators would be wise to recognize this law for what it is: A woefully outdated rule that handicaps market forces and limits consumer freedom.
So-called “weak beer” laws trace their heritage back 85 years to the end of Prohibition. In an underappreciated historical moment, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress passed a law called the Cullen-Harrison Act March 22, 1933, nearly nine months before Prohibition was officially repealed. The act allowed states to pass legislation that would permit the production of 3.2-percent beer — a big step forward at a time when alcohol production was prohibited across the country. The Cullen-Harrison Act was eventually superseded when Prohibition was repealed in toto, but many of the state-level 3.2-percent beer laws it permitted stayed on the books.
Over the last several decades, more and more states have taken steps to repeal these laws, but Utah has remained a stubborn outlier. Now it’s down to two, with just Utah and Minnesota remaining. Unlike Utah, however, Minnesota at least allows private businesses to apply for liquor store licenses that permit them to sell stronger beer. In Utah, which remains a “control state,” the only entities that can sell beer above 3.2 percent alcohol are state-run liquor stores.
Unfortunately, rather than showing signs of reform, Utah has gone backward when it comes to misguided alcohol retailing restrictions in recent years. The state just passed legislation ordering grocery stores to limit themselves to only two displays of beer in their stores and to post “warning signs” specifying that the products in the displays contain alcohol.
Some Utah lawmakers have voiced concerns over drunken driving and other public health issues, using these to justify such retailing restrictions. While public safety is certainly important, it’s clear that the state’s weak beer law — not to mention the warning signs and display rules — do not actually make Utahns safer.
Unlike beer sold for on-premise consumption at bars, beer purchased at grocery stores is for off-premise consumption, which means shoppers won’t be getting intoxicated from the higher-alcohol beers immediately before driving home. Furthermore, the fact that almost every other state in the country allows higher-alcohol beer without any enhanced safety risks shows that these fears are misplaced.
Some defenders of the law have also suggested that many consumers desire lower-alcohol beer. But even if this is the case, we are better off counting on the free market to sort out consumer demand, as demonstrated by the recent rise in low-ABV beers brewers are producing to account for this demand. Allowing consumers to choose from myriad options on their grocery store shelves — from strong and hoppy IPAs to weaker session beers — makes more sense than using government power to regulate consumer tastes.
Finally, despite Utah’s reputation as a conservative state with stringent alcohol laws, it’s worth noting that the state scores high marks for its economic conservatism and regulatory freedom. It’s therefore unsurprising that a majority of Utahns actually support allowing stores to sell higher-alcohol beer.
Lawmakers in Salt Lake City would be wise to heed these citizens and prioritize repealing the state’s 3.2 percent beer law. After all, it makes little sense to use a 1930s law to regulate a 21st century marketplace.
C. Jarrett Dieterle is the Director of Commercial Freedom and a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank.