Research backs up Utah’s alcohol laws


Recently, a colleague of mine wrote a blog post about the flaws in the thinking of a group that opposes one of Utah’s alcohol laws. That blog post started an interesting dialogue on our comment board about whether data or research exists to support Utah’s alcohol control laws. Similarly, a recent local news story raised the research issue.

Certainly, what empirical research suggests about the impacts of public policy is a valid concern, so I did a little digging using Google Scholar. What I found, in short, is that a significant body of peer-reviewed scholarly research indicates that Utah’s alcohol control laws are good for Utah because they protect public health and safety. I have summarized this body of research below, organized by what alcohol control law they apply to, including studies from three research journals: (1) Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, (2) Alcohol and Alcoholism (the official journal of the Medical Council on Alcohol), and (3) Addiction (published by the Society for the Study of Addiction to Alcohol and other Drugs).

Restricting the Number and Location of Businesses that Sell Alcoholic Drinks

A 2009 study reviewed 44 other studies between 2000 and 2008 on “alcohol outlet density” (the number of businesses selling drinks within a set geographic area) and the impacts on alcohol consumption, drinking patterns and damage from alcohol. The authors found that the majority of these studies indicated that alcohol outlet density had a significant effect on one or more of the three impact areas. The study concluded that “restricting availability of alcohol is an effective measure to prevent alcohol-attributable harm.”

A 2008 study looked at alcohol outlet density near universities and found “positive associations between alcohol outlet density and individual drinking and related problems” among college students. Controlling for other factors, the researchers also found that “the associations are unlikely to be due to self-selection effects.” The study concluded that “increasing alcohol outlet density … may increase alcohol-related harm among university students.”

A 2010 study investigated whether demographic and/or socioeconomic characteristics explained associations between alcohol outlet density and “alcohol-related harms.” The authors concluded that “the positive associations seen between alcohol outlet density and both individual level binge drinking and alcohol-related problems appear to be independent of individual and neighborhood [socioeconomic status].” They further concluded that “reducing density of alcohol outlets may reduce alcohol-related harm among those who live nearby.”

Restricting How Late Businesses May Sell Alcoholic Drinks

A 2009 study reviewed 15 other studies between 2000 and 2008 on “hours and days of sale” of alcohol and found that “the majority of studies reviewed found that … hours and days of sale had an impact” on overall alcohol consumption, drinking patterns and/or damage from alcohol. The authors concluded that “restricting availability of alcohol is an effective measure to prevent alcohol-attributable harm.”

A 2011 study looked at how violent crime rates change as governments loosen restrictions on how late businesses can sell alcoholic drinks. The study found that extending the nighttime hours for the sale of alcoholic beverages by one hour was associated with a 17 percent increase in the number of assaults per 100,000 residents, controlling for other factors. The authors concluded that loosening restrictions on how late alcohol outlets can sell liquor “is associated with an increase in violent crime.”

The ‘Zion Curtain’

A 2010 study found that a 13-year-old’s “involvement with … alcohol marketing” was positively associated with that child’s likelihood of being an underage drinker at age 15 (or drinking more frequently, if at age 13 they were already an underage drinker). They even found that a 13-year-old’s simple “awareness” of alcohol marketing was positively associated with higher probabilities of underage drinking, or more frequent underage drinking, by age 15.

This last study is especially intriguing, as it suggests that even a child’s awareness of and exposure to alcohol marketing increases the chances of underage drinking. Not all marketing comes in the form of radio or TV advertisements.

It is not coincidence that a bar in a restaurant is usually located near the front door and in plain sight. It is placed there to encourage customers to purchase alcoholic drinks which make money for the restaurant – the same reason that restaurant hosts are always asking customers if they want to “wait at the bar” when there’s a line to get a table. In other words, a bar’s location in a restaurant is part of a thoughtful marketing strategy designed to make money for the business. And as the above study suggests, such marketing can lead young, impressionable minds to illegally imbibe.

A separate set of studies worth considering (see here, here, here and here) are those showing that alcohol consumption harms not only individuals, but communities and society as well. This harm includes more violent crime, increased family problems, poor public health and net economic costs.

When taken as a whole, this entire body of scholarly empirical data and research are supportive of Utah’s alcohol control laws. Certainly, some will still oppose them for various economic, philosophical or other policy reasons. But the argument that “no research exists” to support Utah’s alcohol regulations is, ironically, clearly based on a lack of research.