Wednesday, July 8, 2009

New alcohol laws take effect in Utah

We would be remiss if we didn't mention the new Utah state alcohol laws that took effect last week. While none of the blog's current contributors live in Utah, it's impossible to ignore the role that the Mormon Church has played in alcohol control policy in the state where a majority of the residents are at least nominally adherents to the faith. The new Utah laws abandon the 40-year-old requirement that bar patrons fill out an application, pay a fee and become a member of a private club. The private club rules were a quintessentially Utah oddity for many years, but they were most noticed during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.

I've never quite understood the rationale of the private club rule. By most accounts, the rule was not much of a barrier to drinking, and in some parts of the state (such as Park City) it wasn't even enforced. So the private club rule doesn't appear to have restricted alcohol consumption. It seems to have had more of a social stigma function, requiring drinkers to be "on a list." In that respect, the updated law hasn't changed much. The Associated Press reports:

The [Mormon] Church has always helped shape alcohol policy here, and the change to the law this year was no different. Only after consultation with church leaders and an agreement that DUI penalties would be stiffened, did lawmakers make progress on the changes.
As part of the agreement, Utah also became the only state in the country to require bars to scan the ID of anyone who appears to be 35 or younger to ensure their ID is valid. Bars store the information for a week so law enforcement can inspect it.
Anyone who has an ID that doesn't properly scan is required to fill out a form logging their presence at the bar.

Utah alcohol laws still have quite a few quirks. That same AP article notes that flavored malt beverages may not be sold at grocery or convenience stores, the percentage of alcohol in beer is capped at 3.2%, happy hours are illegal, and cocktails must be mixed out of the sight of customers.

As a policy matter, I think the new law is at least a step in the right direction, particularly the harsher DUI penalties. I would rather see some more creative solutions, such as those that I discussed earlier this year involving alcohol tax equal to the average marginal social cost of each drink.