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The thirst for Utah liquor licenses continues to grow. The Legislature temporarily relieved the shortage of restaurant licenses in the recent special session, but the state's economy demands a permanent solution. The answer is to adjust the population quotas in the law to allow a steady stream of more licenses.

If the Legislature refuses to do that, it will continue to bang its head on an artificial ceiling on licenses that discourages new restaurants and other businesses in the hospitality industry from opening shop in the Beehive State.

Powerful legislators, including Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, want to hold a tight rein on licenses in order to prevent overconsumption, alcohol abuse and drunken driving. They are right that alcohol abuse and particularly binge drinking are a serious public health and safety concern. The Legislature acted wisely when it included provisions for more enforcement officers in the bill that created 90 new restaurant licenses.

However, adjusting the population quota to allow more restaurant licenses would not contribute to either binge drinking or drunken driving. That's because restaurants aren't a big part of the problem. People don't go to restaurants to get drunk. They go there to eat. Some will order a cocktail or glass of wine with their meal, but few patrons will get drunk during a restaurant meal. For one thing, it's expensive. For another, the wine portions are minuscule.

The Legislature's safety concerns should be focused elsewhere. People binge drink alone or at private parties. Sales of beer to minors at grocery and convenience stores should be one target. Officials could focus more enforcement resources there. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend more sting operations to discourage such sales.

Binge drinking has become such a serious problem among all age groups that the Legislature should be concentrating its fire there, not on license quotas. More funds to treat alcohol abuse and to warn of the health dangers of binge drinking would help. To its credit, Utah already has taken virtually all of the steps the CDC recommends to discourage binge drinking. (Hiding liquor bottles in restaurants behind a Zion curtain is not among those recommendations.)

Perhaps Utah legislators should be researching some questions, too. According to the CDC, Utah has the lowest estimated fraction of adults who binge drink of any state, about 11 percent. Yet Utah also is among the states whose binge drinkers consume the most drinks when they go on a bender. Could a culture that stresses prohibition rather than moderation have something to do with that?

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