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.

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  • Larry The Wine Guy

    There still is no research to support a “Zion Curtain”. While marketing of alcohol takes many forms, it is intended for adults. No child will ever see a bar, a drink being made, a wine bottle being open, if that child’s parents choose not to take him or her into a place where these visuals would be apparent. And there is no evidence, even in the quoted reports, that watching a drink being prepared, by itself, would encourage a child to start drinking.  And nothing can stop a child in a restaurant with a Zion Curtain to notice how much his parents were enjoying their drinks. 

    But the Zion Curtain is not the only issue here. No one says all alcohol laws should be repealed. It’s whether the almost non-existence of instances of a kid viewing a drink being made turn him into an alcoholic versus the severe economic harm that can come from keeping people away from restaurants and even the state of Utah itself, are a greater danger. If a kid steals a car, and hurts people, destroys property, the rest of the state’s drivers do not get punished. How many accidents would be avoided if no one was allowed to drive? 

    What is the benefit of a law that prohibits Sunday sales? If you can point to a benefit, then eliminate Tuesday sales too. And Saturday sales. And don’t forget Friday.

    What is the harm to children if adults bring in wine or spirits from another state? Utah says you can enjoy the alcohol of Brand X, but Brand Y becomes a felony. Is it tax money? Is Utah suddenly concerned with revenue? (But it’s not when it comes to restaurants and bars earning greater revenues and being taxed at higher rates?) And if wineries could ship to residents within Utah, the state could then earn its tax money there.  And kids don’t buy $50 Cabernets online. Ever. In any state.)

    No one opposes all alcohol rules. Just the idiotic ones. And if people violate the civilities of moderate consumption, punish them, not me, not you, and not others who enjoy beer, wine and spirits as part of a civilized life.

    • Derek H Monson


      Your first paragraph seems to boil down to simply saying “make life harder for parents, not for drinkers.” But if alcohol control laws are just about a fight over which set of competing rights we favor as a society, then parents’ right to properly raise their child outweighs your “right” to get a buzz, get drunk, or make a profit from alcohol.

      The body of research that I wrote about suggests that effectively limiting alcohol consumption has benefits for public health, public safety, family stability, and the economy. From that perspective, you’re asking all of the wrong questions.

      The research also suggests that regulating the density (location and proximity) and hours of operation of alcohol outlets and the marketing of alcohol (including not only commercials but physical placing and layout of bars) are effective ways to limit alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm to society. In fact, the outspoken opposition and frustration of the pro-alcohol lobby attests to the fact that this is the case.  You don’t have to believe the research, but it is what it is.

      • Larry The Wine Guy

        1st Paragraph: Um, no. Parents right to properly raise their child include not taking them to where alcohol is served. If it was the only choice of where to eat, you would have a point, but it is not. So you don’t. It’s not a choice of making it harder for drinkers or parents. The choices should be made easier for both.

        2nd Paragraph: Why stop there? Why not ban alcohol consumption entirely? All these benefits to society would be even greater. Ban guns too. Someone might get shot. Ban buses too, someone could get run over.  Ban a free press too. Someone could read about how to do bad things.

        3rd Paragraph: Agree about density, location and proximity within reason. Agree not to have 50 bars across the street from a school.  Layout? Nonsense. No minors in bars, and parents make choices where to go to eat.

        Obviously I don’t want drunk kids (or adults) to injure me or my family. But it’s not a choice of that or punishing people who enjoy a drink with a meal or with friends.  The issue is how much regulation and what kind of regulation.  I am not opposed to regulating alcohol. But I am opposed to regulating it so much (and much of it falsely) that alcohol cannot be part of a healthy and enjoyable lifestyle.

        • Derek H Monson


          In your original post, you wrote that “no child will ever see a bar, a drink being made, a wine bottle being open, if that child’s parents choose not to take him or her into a place where these visuals would be apparent.” From that perspective, the impact of the “Zion Curtain” is to give parents more options of places to go where children will not see a bar, a
          drink being made, or a wine bottle being opened…in other words, to make it easier for parents to exercise their right to properly raise their child as it relates to discouraging their child’s consumption of alcohol.

          On the other hand, from this same perspective the impact of repealing the “Zion Curtain” is to make it harder for parents to exercise this same right, in favor of making easier for people who want to buy and consume alcohol over a bar counter to exercise their right to do so. This boiling down of the alcohol control law debate to a fight over competing rights is simply the logical consequence of viewing the issue from the perspective of “it’s the parents’ job to make sure a child does not see/consume alcohol.”

          Another way of saying this same thing is that if your policy thinking really is “no minors in bars, and parents make choices where to go to eat,” then the choice we face with the “Zion Curtain” policy is whether to: 1) favor the side of parents having greater ability to discourage underage drinking by giving them more choices of places to eat without bars, or 2) favor the side of drinkers and businesses having more choices of places where they
          can specifically buy/sell alcohol over a bar counter.

          Given the greater importance that parents have in establishing a free society in both the present and the future, I side with parents.

          • Larry The Wine Guy

            There is obviously no common ground here. It is not the government’s job to tell restaurateurs how to set up their establishments. Based on your logic, it would be fine to simply ban all alcohol. We tried that in this country and the results were disastrous. Raise your own damn kids. All of this is made up anyway. Kids do not become alcoholics because they see someone pouring a glass of wine for their parents. 

  • Tyler Riggs

    Derek, you have shown nothing that supports research showing the “Zion Curtain” is effective, and have drawn on assumptions for the rest of your words in support of this part of Utah’s alcohol policy. 

    Yes, certainly, marketing of alcohol does have an impact on children. Advertisement of all kinds impact anyone who is exposed — this is why people advertise. They are trying to raise awareness of products and services and ultimately make a profit off of them. The Zion Curtain has nothing to do with stifling marketing, and is purely an obstruction of a private business owner’s ability to provide a legal product to customers who are interested in consuming said legal product. Your argument re-written is that Sutherland supports limited government, except for when government can be intrusive to satisfy a higher-priority value. In Utah, government is socialistic and intrusive to the point of outright disruption of the market when it comes to alcohol. That any “limited government” conservative supports the state’s actions in this realm is contradictory at best. 

    Now, as to your argument that restaurants place bars at the front of restaurants to encourage alcohol purchases. I’d be very interested to see your source of any restaurant’s corporate policy, or any research that indicates promoting alcohol sales is the purpose of locating a bar area where it is located, or having hosting staff invite customers to sit in a bar. First of all, I think any reasonable person would agree that a customer patronizing a restaurant generally knows that alcohol is an item on the menu there, and if they intend to order alcohol, they are going to go through with that intent irrespective of the bar being in the front, back, left, right, or behind a Zion Curtain. 

    When you go to a restaurant and it is at capacity and the host invites you to sit in the bar area, it is not to promote alcohol sales, it is to keep you in the building instead of going to the restaurant next door. You see, in America, businesses are permitted to operate within the bounds of established laws, rules, and mores, and to attempt to maximize their profits in doing so. A customer who is able to queue in a bar area is more likely to ultimately order a meal from that restaurant and thus make the restaurant money than a customer who discovers there is a 10 minute wait at Restaurant A and decides to go to Restaurant B. There is plenty of research on queuing theory, especially in reference to restaurants, including a Harvard case study about Benihana and its use of a bar area to batch groups of customers together to maximize efficiency in the restaurant. Customers, of course, can choose to sit in the bar area or not, and once there can choose to order a drink or not, but of course you are now advocating government make that choice for the free person by imposing stringent regulations. 

    For the other points of your blog post, you brought legitimate research to the table, and that is appreciated and noted. But by positing that arguments against Utah’s alcohol policy are centered on a belief that “no research exists” and then actually presenting no research germane to the Zion Curtain policy, you are proving the exact point of critics: This portion of Utah’s alcohol policy is illogical, anti-business, and has no basis other than the theocratic self-interested desires of the policymakers who advocated for it. 

    • Derek H Monson

      The argument that restaurants place bars near the front of the restaurant is simply a reasonable conclusion given the facts. Bars and restaurants make a lot of money…and I mean A LOT of money…off of alcoholic beverages. As an example, a former bartender friend of mine recently told me that the price of a typical alcoholic beverage is about 90% markup and 10% cost (i.e. for a $3.25 alcoholic beverage, the drink itself cost the business about 25 cents and the other $3 is markup).
      Of course, part of that markup pays for things like the bartender’s wages, but given these business realities it’s easy to see why a restaurant would want its 90%-markup product to be placed front-and-center in the restaurant. They want to encourage people to buy their most profitable product. In other words, they want to market alcohol. You don’t need research or a corporate policy to understand that…you just need the facts and a common sense understanding of the purpose of a business (to make money). And if the placing of a bar in a restaurant is about marketing to increase a restaurant’s profit, then the “Zion Curtain” is about alcohol marketing, at least when it comes to its impact on society, which is what public policy is really about, isn’t it?
      Lastly, your contention about what a limited government conservative should and should not support misses an essential part about what the principle of limited government really means. Yes, it means that government should be limited in its influence. But it also means that the government has proper, even essential, roles that it fulfills in a free society. In my view as a conservative, one of those roles is to regulate substances – legal or otherwise – that by their nature impair people’s ability to live as productive members of society. A substance that impairs rational thinking and judgment, such as alcohol, is just such a substance.
      Another point underlying all of this is that authentic conservatism is not as linear as I think you’re making it out to be. Conservatism is about applying tried and tested principles to the life’s many complexities and contradictions. To someone looking at life in a linear fashion that will at times seem contradictory because, after all, what is limited government over here must also be limited government over there, right?
      Wrong. Life is not that simple, and so for an authentic conservative trying to ground his thinking in reality, conservative thinking won’t be that simple either.

  • Pingback: Research backs up Utah’s alcohol laws, part 2: CDC recommendations | Sutherland Daily()

  • Dan Bosler

    what a joke! what kind of hack wrote this article? Usually a writer starts with research and then comes the article. Can you say propoganda?

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