Put burden of proof on those who would liberalize liquor laws

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

Flaming_cocktailsLast year, a scholarly paper was presented at the Alcohol Policy 16 Conference explaining how restaurants can transform in all practical aspects into bars through liberalized liquor laws – to the point at which restaurants are becoming more of the source of disorder and crime than bars. The paper did not describe circumstances in heavy control states such as Utah or Arkansas or Kentucky. The paper studied progressive, enlightened, liquor-loving California.

The problem is that restaurants are not regulated as strictly as bars. When restaurants morph into bars, the ill effects are equally present but the lack of regulations do not adequately compensate for the growth in disorder and crime. These morphing restaurants over-serve and under-enforce, leading to disproportionate numbers of police calls for drunkenness, violence and sexual assault.

Local government officials encourage morphing in the name of economic development precisely because restaurants face fewer controls and there can be ambiguity between state liquor laws, local zoning ordinances and discretion in use permits. Even as state liquor laws struggle to keep up with morphing, local governments and businesses lack incentive to mitigate it. Shared authority becomes a hindrance to effective liquor control policies.

Measuring, or quantifying, the effects of restaurants becoming bars is a double-edged sword. The ability to measure the effects of morphing exists but the measurements require experiences where morphing already has occurred. In other words, you only can measure what already has occurred – hardly a prudent way to learn the lessons of alcohol abuse and the destructive influences of liberalized laws.

In all of this sits Utah’s “Zion Curtain” law. For cynics who demand evidence that the “Zion Curtain” reduces liquor consumption and mitigates under-age drinking, there is one sure way to find out: get rid of it and expand access to liquor in restaurants.

Likewise, for parents to determine if pornography harms their 14 year-old son, there is one way to find out: take down pictures in his room of Jesus and religious icons and replace them with posters of naked women. A parent might not be able to prove the benefits of pictures of Jesus or religious icons in the boy’s room, but they certainly will be able to prove the effects that posters of naked women have on the boy.

Understanding the benefit of Utah’s “Zion Curtain” law is that simple. Any control law or regulation that limits access to liquor benefits society, in the aggregate, in terms of alcohol related deaths, accidents or injuries. The “Zion Curtain” does not prevent liquor consumption but it does send a subtle signal that Utah restaurants are not bars and, in a desired culture of sobriety, the people don’t want their restaurants to become bars.

In this debate, Sutherland Institute calls for a new standard in the burden of proof. Rather than requiring the state to prove the obvious benefit of liquor control policies, including the “Zion Curtain” law, cynics of liquor control measures should own the burden to prove that liberalizing Utah liquor laws won’t lead to deleterious effects for consumers and society. Prove that, cynics, and perhaps you will win the day. Until that day, the state will have to go with its exceptional results as liquor control policy reflects Utah’s solid culture of sobriety.

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