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.

Secular laws vs. God’s laws

I was on the road last weekend and attended church at a Mormon ward in another city. Their Sunday School schedule was a week behind my home ward, so I got to hear the Word of Wisdom lesson twice. After hearing members of the class quibble over what constitutes “hot drinks” and the purpose behind the various prohibitions and admonitions, I started thinking about how the Word of Wisdom compares to secular laws.

I’ve often said before that the Word of Wisdom would be a lot clearer if it came with a definition section, but that approach probably wouldn’t work well for a religious law. A Word of Wisdom written like modern statutes would probably be less ambiguous, but it would also be limited by the text of the document. For example, illegal drugs are commonly included in the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom, but there isn’t any particular text in Doctrine & Covenants 89 that supports this interpretation. Instead, that prohibition is based on the spirit of the law and (more importantly) revelation and clarification by modern prophets having the authority of God.

We have secular laws for many of the same reasons that we have laws from God. Those laws are intended at least in part to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others, so as to create a better-functioning society. Secular laws tend to be lengthy and difficult to understand, with rigid structures and terms of art that make them inaccessible to the layman. Secular laws, even constitutions, can usually be updated or amended by their enacting bodies to deal with changed circumstances. Sometimes secular laws can be interpreted by judicial bodies to clarify or extend the application thereof.

God’s laws tend to be relatively simple, even if they aren’t exhaustively thorough. They are designed so that even a child can understand the basic principles. They aren’t always crystal clear in structure or purpose, but like secular laws, religious laws can be clarified and expanded — not by legislatures or judges, but by God’s servants and messengers. And unlike secular laws, God’s laws always have an element of subjective application. Thus, there is considerable variation within the Mormon Church with respect to certain practices, such as paying tithing on gross or net income, drinking or avoiding Coke, etc.

Even though a Word of Wisdom with a definition section would be easier to follow, it doesn’t seem like a good idea. God’s laws weren’t meant to be subjected to textual analysis, but rather, inspired guidance and illustration by His servants. Attempting to quantify and dictate every aspect of worship was precisely what the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were trying to do, and that didn’t work out too well for them. Worship was never intended to require legal counsel — it is a personal relationship with Deity. So now when the members of my Sunday School class question how much meat consumption qualifies as “sparingly,” I sit back and smile. If that’s what it takes in order to keep the Gospel of Jesus Christ from devolving into arcane legal discussions, then it’s a small price to pay.

The LDS Church and alcohol control policy

Over at one of my favorite legal blogs, the Volokh Conspiracy, Duke Professor Phillip J. Cook recently wrote an interesting guest-blogging series on alcohol control policy. This is very much a topic of public debate, with the recent Amethyst Initiative group of college and university presidents that have argued for a lowering of the drinking age. All of Professor Cook’s posts are recommended reading, particularly because he approaches the issue in several refreshing ways that get beyond the same old rhetoric. There’s no particularly direct tie-in to the LDS Church, but given the general admonitions of the Word of Wisdom, I think Professor Cook’s conclusions are interesting and relevant.

Does the Mormon Church have a stance on alcohol control policy? There is no item on the Public Issues page of the LDS Newsroom like there is for abortion, child abuse, euthanasia, or embryonic stem-cell research. However, last September the Newsroom issued a press release entitled “Alcohol: A Focus on Health and Safety,” which stated; “The Church has always called for reasonable regulations to (1) limit overconsumption, (2) reduce impaired driving and (3) work to eliminate underage drinking.” The statement is heavily focused on the State of Utah, where the Mormon Church has large membership and community involvement.

The positive consequences of Utah’s current regulations on alcohol consumption are readily apparent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah has the lowest percentage of alcohol-related motor vehicle deaths in America. It also has the lowest per-capita alcohol consumption in the nation.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Utahns, including those who work in the hospitality industry, can come together as citizens, regardless of religion or politics, to support laws and regulations that allow individual freedom of choice while preserving Utah’s proven positive health and safety record on limiting the tragic consequences of overconsumption of alcohol.

The LDS Church’s stance on alcohol control is a relatively pragmatic one. The same statement notes, “While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches its members to avoid alcohol altogether, it acknowledges that alcoholic beverages are available to the public.” It seems to me, then, that the LDS Church would not advocate a Prohibition-style alcohol restrictions, but rather a system of regulations that would minimize the harmful effects ofoverconsumption, impaired driving, and underage drinking.

With those goals in mind, what sort of regulatory scheme is preferable? This is where Professor Cook’s comments are enlightening. He notes that regulations aimed at the negative behaviors associated with alcohol consumption are relatively costly and difficult to enforce. His solution is to aim for the pocketbook. Professor Cook argues that the current taxation levels of alcohol are at historic lows and are insufficient to take into account the cost to society of alcohol. He follows this assertion up with some data on alcohol consumption and an interesting hypothetical:

Per capita consumption in the United States runs about 500 drinks per year, where a “drink” is a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5 ounce shot of 80-proof spirits (all of which have about the same amount of ethanol) But that average also conceals a great deal of variation: about 35 % of adults abstain, and drinking is very concentrated within the larger group who do drink.
The famous 20-80 rule of marketing applies – 20% of the consumers of most any commodity account for 80% of the total purchased. Removing the abstainers, that means that 13% of adults consume 80% of the ethanol, and thus pay 80% of the tax. (I’ve checked this estimate against actual self-reported drinking, and it works pretty well.)
What’s more, only about 7% of adults drink more than that 500-drink per capita average. That means that 93% of the American public contribute less than average to the alcohol tax.
As a thought experiment, consider increasing the alcohol tax by 10 cents per drink and then distributing the proceeds annually to every adult, $50 each. All but 7% would come out ahead on this deal. Given the preventive effect of higher alcohol prices, even that group would benefit from lower auto insurance rates and in other ways.
This thought experiment reminds us of the nice feature of alcohol taxes – unlike other prevention measures, this one generates revenue. And taxes no longer seem quite so crude or unfair, being nicely concentrated on the heaviest drinkers where we also find most of the abuse and social costs.

Taxation isn’t my area of expertise, but this proposal piqued my interest. I doubt it would be a politically viable proposal, but it sounds great on paper. Professor Cook then discusses the more important question of how much each drink should be taxed. If a decrease in alcohol consumption causes a decrease in drunk driving deaths, child abuse, and crime, a purely health and safety approach would advocate a rate of taxation so high as to virtually eliminate (legal) drinking. This is obviously infeasible. Professor Cook writes:

The most defensible approach in my mind is to set the tax equal to the average marginal social cost of a drink, perhaps with some distinctions between beer and spirits, or between on-premise and off-premise service. Estimating the precise levels would require careful up-to-date analysis. But we don’t have to do that precise analysis to know for sure that the social costs are much higher than the current tax rates. In particular, the increases that are being proposed by various governors this year are just a small step in the right direction, far less than the full social costs.

I agree with this approach, at it would seem to fit the Mormon Church’s recommendation for a reasonable regulation to limit overconsumption, impaired driving, and underage drinking.

Photo credit: Ben McLeod.