Liquor laws are the great divide
November 12, 2013
Park City has always bristled at the unique liquor laws crafted down in Salt Lake City and both critics and defenders of those laws recently came together to discuss some of the particulars of the laws.
Utah State Representative Kraig Powell hosted a community forum to discuss Utah’s liquor laws Thursday, Nov. 7, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Park City.
In his opening remarks, Powell drew big applause from the Park City crowd when he noted the common complaint that "those who don’t drink write the liquor laws."
The forum was part of the church’s "Project for Deeper Understanding" series of forums and lectures, designed to help people understand opposing views when it comes to divisive issues.
The forum featured discussion among panelists who hail from a variety of backgrounds, followed by a Q&A with the audience.
The panelists were State Senator John Valentine, State Representative Jack Draxler, Craig PoVey, program administrator for the Utah Division of Substance Abuse, Hans Fuegi, owner of Grub Steak Restaurant (among others) and board member of the Utah and Park City Area Restaurant Associations and Utah Office of Tourism Development, James Dumas, executive chef at High West Distillery & Saloon, and Des Barker, a lobbyist for the Park City Chamber/Bureau.
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The forum focused on two aspects of the liquor laws — the "intent to dine" and "separate dispensing area" laws. Those laws apply to restaurants, and Powell noted that restaurants should be the current focus, because that’s where the tourists are.
The "intent to dine" law was modified this year and requires restaurants to only serve alcoholic beverages to diners after the restaurant "confirms that the patron has the intent to order food." The law essentially requires restaurant hosts to ask its patrons "Will you be dining with us today?"
Hans Fuegi said the requirement is embarrassing and likened it to someone showing up at an ice rink with ice skates and being asked "Are you going to be skating with us today?"
James Dumas added "It’s hard. We should be focusing on customers."
The forum’s legislators frequently defended the current laws, often citing health factors and "the social costs" of drinking. Underage drinking and binge drinking were frequently mentioned as the two key problems the liquor laws are intended to address.
Fuegi said that binge drinking doesn’t happen in restaurants and they should not be targeted for it.
Rep. Drexler noted that only three percent of funds from beer taxes go toward alcohol abuse prevention and implied that number should be much higher.
"I’m the three percent guy," Craig PoVey followed-up. PoVey said that he grew up in "a smoke-filled house" at a time when no one wore seatbelts. "There is a role to try to curb potential risks," he said, that could lead to "chronic disease, death, suffering."
"Research is very clear," PoVey said. "The more a product is available and the easier it is to get, the more it will be used."
The "separate dispensing area" law requires any post-2010 restaurant licensees to wall off from the diners’ view all alcoholic-beverage preparation. Complaints were voiced that this law hurts restaurants, its diners, who cannot see how their drinks are prepared, and bartenders or "mixologists," who are literally walled-off from showing off their trade.
Des Barker said that tourism suffers when tourists go home and "talk around the water cooler" about Utah’s liquor laws. He said that the effect is the exact opposite of what is intended by Utah’s slogan, "Life Elevated."
Much of the discussion during the forum revolved around the damage to the tourism industry, if any, that is collateral damage from the onerous liquor laws. Rep. Drexler claimed "the legislature has a genuine interest not to hurt tourism." But he also stated earlier that he feels "changes to the [liquor] laws go as far as they need to go."
The legislators did not, however, seem eager to study in a scientific manner the deleterious effects on tourism in Utah. Several times, they cited a University of John’s Hopkins study about alcohol use. This led a questioner to ask whether any studies are being commissioned that would specifically examine the tourism effects in Utah. The legislators did not seem compelled and implied that such a study would be difficult to accomplish and intrusive towards tourists, when the idea is that Utah is already being too intrusive towards them.
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