New, more liberal state laws governing advertisements of liquor and alcoholic beverages took effect Thursday after temporary rules in place since August were formally adopted by the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.

Under the new guidelines, restaurants are permitted to advertise wine and beers on menus, and servers can ask customers if they would like alcohol with their meals and present a bottle of wine at the table. Additionally, ads for hard liquor, wine and all beers can appear on billboards, print publications, and neon signs from within restaurants and bars.

The formal adoption Wednesday followed a 30-day public comment period, and commission members were not impressed with the quality of comments received.

"We got a lot of information about what was wrong with us, what was wrong with the liquor laws and what was wrong with the [Utah State] Legislature," said Ted Lewis, commission member. "We really genuinely wanted some help, but we didn't get much."

Most comments had nothing to do with the advertising regulations, Chairman Nicholas Hales said. Instead, some pointed out Utah's world is going to get much bigger soon and that the state should recognize and prepare for the image it wants to project.

Some examples: "It's time you people realize you ARE part of the nation and not in your own little world. . . . You're going to make fools of yourselves and the rest of our nation at the 2002 Olympics," said Erin Reagan's e-mail from an EarthLink address.

However, comments from Utahns were generally more civil and often supportive of the previous, more restrictive advertising rules on alcohol. Brian Crosby in his e-mail even suggested they already were too liberal. And Springville residents Phillip and Kristina Lowry questioned why any change was necessary when advertising on other addictive substances, like tobacco, would not even be considered.

The commission adopted the temporary rules after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver suggested in July that Utah's restrictive liquor advertising laws could be found unconstitutional. Those laws since the end of prohibition have banned ads promoting any alcoholic beverages stronger than 3.2 percent-alcohol beer.

That hard-line stance was challenged five years ago by the state's liquor lobby — the Utah Licensed Beverage Association — as well as Catalyst magazine and Salt Lake City resident Wayne Benson. The group argued that Utah's restrictive liquor advertising laws violate First Amendment guarantees of free commercial speech.

Utah federal judge David Sam disagreed, ruling that commercial speech is accorded a much lesser degree of protection and must be balanced against Utah's recognized right to regulate alcoholic beverages. The plaintiffs appealed and Sam's March 2000 decision was overturned.

Brian Barnard, a Salt Lake City civil rights attorney who represented the plaintiffs, said Thursday the commission's decision "has been a long time coming, but this proves that the First Amendment does apply in the state of Utah."

Hales, the control commission chairman, said Utah residents need to be patient in adjusting to the new rules, and that those rules likely will need fine-tuning in the future.


E-mail: kswinyard@desnews.com