‘Zion Curtain’ is a useful reminder

BardrinksThe following post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

In Utah’s liquor wars, it’s no secret that Sutherland Institute supports current laws designed to decrease the sale and consumption of alcohol. I personally testified at a recent interim committee hearing on Utah liquor policy, from a conservative point of view,

Instead of entertaining jokes about Utah’s “Zion Curtain,” we’d be much better off searching for more ways to isolate the culture of drinking in this state – that is, if we’re serious about protecting the public interest. And despite feigned ignorance about culture and its effects, everyone knows what we mean. Specifically, a culture of drinking promotes liquor consumption just as a culture of dining promotes food consumption. The Zion Curtain law simply reminds us that a culture of drinking is different than a culture of dining.

Trust me when I tell you that I’ve heard every objection to those remarks that can possibly exit a reasonable person’s mouth – and many objections from unremarkably slurred voices. Where I seem to differ with my critics is that I believe freedom trumps individual liberty in some cases, and liquor, like the use of hard narcotics, is one of those cases. Again, as I testified, “We know that when someone is impaired or drunk, they’re not really free. It’s specious to argue that an individual liberty to consume as much liquor as you want, whenever and wherever you want, is some God-given principle in a free society.”

The biggest objections to my argument regard what I refer to as a “culture of drinking.”

It seems with some folks that it’s easier to see the point than to think about it. So I paint a mental picture for critics: A bar is a culture of drinking; a restaurant, not so much. You know what you’re doing when you walk into a bar. A bar owner knows what he is selling. A bar waitress knows what she is serving. It’s clear that inside a bar culture, you’re there to consume liquor. That’s an obvious culture of drinking.

And yet, despite the obviousness of that culture when we see it, some Utah legislators  and liquor advocates challenge, not simply the state role in regulating liquor but even, the mere idea of a culture of drinking.

Not long ago, an Associated Press report about Utah’s Zion Curtain, the partition that screens where liquor is mixed from where liquor is served in restaurants, quotes an Ogden restaurant owner describing how he markets liquor to diners. He said to AP, “Everything we do is for show” and likened the visible pouring of liquor to a dessert cart. AP writes, “The display of pastries and sweets bolsters dessert sales at the restaurant by about 15 percent … and [the owner] estimates that taking the [Zion] curtain down would boost wine sales by a similar margin.”

Just last week The Salt Lake Tribune ran a lead story headlined, “Utah’s Zion Curtain hides the art behind craft cocktails.” The reporter states, “Part of the fun in sipping a craft cocktail is seeing it made.” The story goes on at length to describe the culture of drinking in restaurants hampered by Utah’s Zion Curtain.

My point is that a culture of drinking is obvious to anyone who chooses to see it. The policy question is this: Should Utah liquor laws promote the reduction of the harmful effects of liquor? Should Utah liquor laws “protect the public interest”? If you think so, like I do, the Zion Curtain makes perfect sense in stifling a culture of drinking in restaurants where children dine along with adults.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

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