Mero Moment: More Liquor

This week we’re back on the wagon with Utah’s quirky liquor laws.  Yesterday, the Utah State Legislature passed compromise bills to reform Utah’s existing liquor laws.  The compromise was a love-fest that included the next President of – whatever company his dad buys for him – Jon Huntsman, Jr., the LDSChurch, and special interest groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

For decades, Utah liquor laws have attempted to stigmatize public consumption.  Like every other state in the Union, Utah has an Alcoholic Beverage Commission that regulates the sale of liquor and controls liquor sales at the point of purchase through state liquor stores.

Unlike every other state in the Union, Utah also required most bars to register as private clubs – meaning that patrons had to pay a cover charge to enter the business and consume alcohol.  In recent years, this difference in Utah law, compared to every other state, has been largely viewed as backward and embarrassing.

With that as backdrop, the Utah State Legislature has changed the way liquor in Utah will be sold and consumed.

Private club memberships would be eliminated.

What has been called the “Zion Curtain,” a small partition between where drinks are mixed and where drinks are served, would be removed.

A new electronic ID system would be required.  Bars would scan a customer’s driver’s license to confirm the person’s identity and age, and the scan would sit in the bar’s computer for a week.

New restaurants wanting to sell liquor in Utah would have to have a separate area where drinks are mixed. This would allow a convenience counter, or bar-like setting, but would keep the sight of liquor out of the vision of children.  Existing restaurants that sell liquor would be able to continue to do so, as they have.

Some penalties would go up – for bars and restaurants, their liability would increase to $2 million in cases where the business was actually found to have encouraged over-consumption; and, repeat drunk-driving offenders would lose their licenses.

So, what do I make of all this?

First, while at times I can live with change for change’s sake, I’m one of those people who actually think our reasons for making changes matter.  And, frankly, the whole anti-Mormon-I’m-embarrassed-for-Utah arguments are stupid reasons to make changes.  So is the Governor’s whole “we drink thus we tour” attitude – a bizarre public policy concept, to say the least.

Second, the compromise reforms have turned out intelligent for the most part.  Legislators have done a great job at working with disparate elements and have brought them together effectively.  Frankly, I didn’t think that could happen.

Third, it’s clear that the LDS Church still controls this issue.  The compromise wouldn’t have happened without its concurrence.

Lastly, outside of personal pain management, I still don’t understand the emotional appeal to booze, especially how it all plays out in the public square.

This compromise is more than law and policy.  It’s cultural.  As long as the public debate is about under-age drinking and over-consumption, the culture of drinking will continue to slide into a place where both objectives will be hard to address.  The real public debate should be about reducing consumption, period. Just like it has been with tobacco.

For the Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.