One way to crack down on binge drinking in Utah? Raise liquor prices

Posted at 4:53 PM, Sep 23, 2014
and last updated 2014-09-24 09:00:08-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Despite being one of 17 liquor control states, Utah has seen record breaking alcohol sales.

"Utah is a state that even though there's a large population that doesn't drink, there is a subset of the population that really drinks a lot," said Dr. Robert Brewer of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Alcohol Program.

At an alcohol policy summit at the Utah State Capitol last week, lawmakers, industry representatives and others discussed the problem of binge drinking and ways to stop it.

The Utah Department of Health reports that nearly 31 percent of adults reported having a drink within the past 30 days. Nearly a third reported binge drinking, defined as consuming five or more drinks in one setting.

For teens in grades 9-12, 11 percent reported taking a drink within the past 30 days. Nearly six percent reported binge drinking.

The CDC claims excessive alcohol consumption costs Utah as much as $1.4 billion in lost workplace productivity, healthcare expenses and crime.

One idea floated to push back against binge drinking: raising the price of alcohol.

"Alcohol consumption is actually very responsive to price and if it's expensive people tend to drink less," said Dr. Brewer. "That's particularly true about people who drink too much."

Utah law dictates that liquor is sold at a mandatory cost plus 86 percent markup. Drink specials like "happy hour" are illegal. Beer is sold at a set tax rate that doesn't rise or fall with inflation.

While he had no plans to run any bills that deal with liquor prices this year, Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, told FOX 13 he was considering changes in future years. A bill to change the beer tax failed in past years, he said.

Alcohol industry reps like Steve Conlin of Ogden's Own Distillery pointed out at the summit that binge drinkers are a small segment of the overall population and price hikes have other consequences -- such as a spike in bootlegging across state lines.

"While a certain segment of the population may eat a lot of sugar, we don't outlaw sugar because there's some people that can't be responsible with it," he said.