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Utah Alcohol Laws Hit the ‘Sweet Spot’ Between Consumer Demand and Health Concerns, Speaker Says

October 19, 2019 | Kathy Stephenson | The Salt Lake Tribune

Utah’s alcohol laws may seem too strict — at least to many people — when compared to those in other states.

But the Beehive State actually hits the “sweet spot,” Steven Schmidt, with the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, said Friday.

The state strikes a balance between consumer access to beer, wine and spirits, while also having rules to prevent underage consumption, overconsumption, drunken driving and other harms associated with liquor.

“For those that believe Utah is out of step or has gone too far," Schmidt told attendees at the annual Utah Legislative Alcohol Policy Summit, “they are wrong.”

Two Davis County lawmakers who oversee alcohol policy in the Utah Legislature — Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville — hosted the summit at the Capital along with the Utah Valley Drug Prevention Coalition.

The daylong gathering brought together state and national leaders — as well as alcohol producers and distributors — who heard about the latest research and statistics in hopes informing future discussions about alcohol laws.

“This is a complex area of policy,” said Hawkes, noting that he has been binge-watching the Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition” to better understand alcohol history in the United States. While the public television series documents events that happened nearly a century ago, he said, “it highlights the fundamental tension in alcohol policy" that still exists today — the need to balance access and social costs.

The issue hits home for Hawkes, who said he learned not long ago that his great-grandfather, a newly arrived immigrant from the Netherlands, had been killed by a drunken driver. That “reverberates through a family and generations,” he said. “That’s why it is incumbent on us to get it right and strike that balance.”

Utah is getting it right, according to Schmidt with the NABCA — which represents the 17 states (including Utah) that directly control the distribution and sale of alcohol.

He pointed to a study conducted by Timothy Naimi at Boston Medical Center that scored the 50 states — on a scale of 0 to 3. States with higher scores had stronger policies — such as higher taxes, restrictions on where and when alcohol is sold, limits on advertising and increased enforcement.

Utah scored about 2.5, putting it fourth highest, behind Oklahoma, Tennessee and Alabama. Kansas and Washington had similar scores to Utah.

South Dakota had the most lenient policies, scoring under 1, followed by Wisconsin and Iowa.

Higher alcohol policy scores, Schmidt said, represented stronger policy environments and were associated with less adult binge drinking and accounted for a substantial proportion of the state-level variation in binge drinking among U.S. states.

Katherine Karriker-Jaffe with the Alcohol Research Group, said states with higher scores also had fewer “secondhand harms” from alcohol use, which range from lack of family finances and ruined property to harassment.

In states with restrictive alcohol polices, she said, “the odds of secondary harms were reduced by 16 percent."

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