Liquor ‘bait-and-switch’ could happen in Utah, too

Alcohol_bottles_photographed_while_drunkChain restaurants – including three that operate in Utah – have been charged with liquor fraud in New Jersey.

Examples of fraud ranged from filling premium-brand bottles with cheap alcohol and selling it at premium prices, to pouring dirty water into empty liquor bottles and selling it, and even selling colored rubbing alcohol as whisky.

A recent New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control investigation known as “Operation Swill” led to a list of 29 bars and restaurants – including both local businesses and national restaurant chains – being charged with fraudulently selling liquor to their customers.

Three chain restaurants with locations in Utah – Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, and TGI Fridays – were on that list of liquor retailers. TGI Fridays was especially implicated, accounting for 13 of the 29 alleged fraudulent operations.

While all of these instances of alleged fraud occurred in New Jersey, this deceptive marketing practice of liquor retailers should be of concern to Utahns and Utah policymakers, especially since legislators recently passed specific legislation to encourage the kind of chain restaurants implicated in New Jersey (i.e., restaurants with full-service alcohol sales) to move to or expand in Utah. As one imbibing blogger at Slate (not exactly a right-wing author or publication) put it: “If the bait-and-switch is happening in New Jersey, it’s happening elsewhere, too.”

It stands to reason that the driving force behind any restaurant fraudulently selling liquor is one thing: making money. Restaurants are in business to make money, after all. And as a former-bartender colleague of mine has mentioned many times, businesses that sell liquor make a lot of money doing it.

The drive for profits is the reason that many restaurants in California – especially national chain restaurants – have been skirting liquor licensing laws to “morph” into bars at night, in terms of their marketing and sales behavior. It is also likely the reason that Utah’s liquor industry has been lobbying heavily in recent years to loosen or “liberalize” Utah’s liquor laws.

The fact that liquor is a drug that limits human freedom by impairing the ability to reason clearly and judge rationally is secondary. The fact that, according to the federal government, more than 10,000 people a year die in America from “alcohol-impaired driving crashes” is secondary. The fact that alcohol causes nearly 20,000 cancer deaths per year in America is secondary. Also secondary are the facts that one-third of Utah high school students have illegally consumed alcohol; Utah restaurants illegally serve alcohol to minors 30 percent of the time; and underage drinking in Utah annually costs hundreds of millions of dollars in health care and local police costs.

In the end, despite all the harm to individuals, families and society caused by liquor and easy access to it, liquor retailers want to loosen liquor laws primarily to make more money.

To be fair, a desire to increase one’s income is not an uncommon, or even immoral, thing. Most people you ask will say they would like to bring home more money.

But most Utahns, thankfully, also recognize that that increasing sales of a drug that kills people, causes cancer, prevents rational judgment, and impairs basic reasoning faculties is not the best way to do it – especially for the Utah communities they know and love. Hopefully, Utah’s liquor laws will continue to reflect that social, and human, reality.