The annual alcohol policy debate in the Utah Legislature is brewing. Grocery stores are seeking to loosen regulations on the sale of beer. Public health and safety advocates are celebrating that Utah just became the first state in the nation to implement a .05 blood alcohol content standard in DUI law — and are no doubt preparing for further debate.
These dynamics present a genuine opportunity for the 2019 Legislature to begin building a consensus around alcohol policy reforms that evidence and data suggest will reduce overconsumption and underage drinking, while preventing burdens on businesses.
The facts are these:
1. Utah requires beer sold in grocery stores to have a lower alcohol content (aka 3.2 beer) than beer sold in state liquor stores (aka heavy beer).
2. Recent changes to such laws in other states leave Utah as one of the few remaining states with such a law.
3. Major retail chains, such as Walmart, want Utah’s beer sales law to be the same as in other states.
4. The evidence tends to show that effective policies for reducing excessive drinking include higher alcohol taxes; regulating how, where and when alcohol can be sold, and holding alcohol retailers liable for overserving customers.
5. Scholarly policy research suggests that increasing the price of alcoholic beverages is one of the most effective means of reducing underage drinking and overconsumption because children (who lack money) and heavy drinkers (who buy the most alcohol) are impacted the most.
6. That same research suggests these policies are a fair way to regulate alcohol for public health and safety, since they impact moderate or social drinkers the least.
Given these facts, there are various policies that could form the basis for consensus on a package of alcohol policy reforms. They would engender too much opposition as stand-alone measures, but as a package, they just might give everyone something to get behind.
How to compromise?
Address 3.2 beer
Let grocery store customers buy heavy beer without putting it in actual grocery store aisles. In today’s digital marketplace, most grocery stores offer online ordering, drive-by pickup and home delivery of groceries. These methods of buying groceries could allow grocery stores to sell heavy beer while maintaining the portion of Utah’s 3.2 beer law that keeps heavy beer off grocery store shelves, where it can easily be marketed or made appealing to minors. This policy reform would serve the interests of not only grocery stores and children, but also many of Utah’s local craft breweries — which have expressed an interest in continuing to produce 3.2 beer for grocery stores if national beer manufacturers halt production due to other states dropping their 3.2 beer laws.
Tax heavy beer
Second, address the loss in state revenue likely to occur if grocery stores sell heavy beer. Efforts to protect Utahns from overconsumption and underage drinking are funded by revenue that comes from state liquor stores, and these programs could be negatively impacted if heavy-beer sales shift from liquor stores to grocery stores. This problem could be resolved and public health and safety protected by imposing a surtax on heavy beer that is higher than the markup charged by state liquor stores. As the scholarly evidence suggests, making heavy beer more expensive is also likely to reduce overconsumption and underage drinking of heavy beer.
Enforce public safety laws
Third, the added revenue from making the heavy beer surtax higher than the liquor store markup could be used to boost enforcement of Utah’s alcohol policies on grocery stores. Any store wanting a license to sell heavy beer should be required to ID every heavy-beer customer when their online order is picked up or delivered. Violations of this requirement — verified simply by law enforcement officers ordering heavy beer online — should come with stiff fines and automatic suspensions of a heavy-beer license. That license could also come with restrictions on the marketing of online heavy-beer sales to prevent marketing to children — including banning any heavy-beer marketing inside grocery stores.
While a push to reform Utah’s alcohol policies has become typical, lawmakers don’t have to respond in a typical fashion. They can think bigger and improve public health and safety in the process. If they do, they might just accomplish something worth raising a glass to.