Nobody knows whether hiding restaurant bartenders from view really cuts down on underage drinking, as Utah lawmakers suggest. There's just no research on the issue.
So researchers say Utah should study whether requiring restaurants to build back rooms or frosted partitions to hide bartenders protects teens from being tempted to drink.
"It's a unique countermeasure against teen drinking I've never heard of anything like this," said Jim Fell, a research scientist with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. "I understand what the Utah Legislature was trying to do to reduce teens' exposure to alcohol. But since they implemented this, they should find out whether or not this is an effective strategy."
The California-based, nonprofit operates research centers across the nation to assess strategies intended to improve public health and safety. Its areas of expertise include substance abuse and other health-risk behaviors among adolescents and young adults.
Fell said research does show that if teens' peers or parents drink alcohol, it's likely the teens also will imbibe. Research also shows that if parents forbid underage drinking and closely monitor their children, teens are less apt to drink. But Fell said he knows of no research on the relationship between underage drinking and the glamour associated with bartenders mixing drinks at restaurants.
"Exposure to alcohol does have an effect on teen drinking, but I worry that the multimedia, including alcohol advertising, would overwhelm any effects that the Utah law might have," said Fell. "It's important to evaluate this but it would have to be done by an independent, objective researcher, not someone who is an advocate or who opposes the law."
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who wrote the law, said he would support an independent, unbiased review.
"I would think that funding a study would be a legitimate use of state funds," he said. "It would have to be conducted in an open and transparent process by an entity that is truly independent and objective."
Art Brown, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving's Utah Chapter, said restaurants serving alcohol in front of adolescents "can be interpreted as putting the kids in a bar environment" at a time in their lives when they may be particularly vulnerable to drinking.
Brown points to research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA), which shows that developmental transitions such as puberty and increasing independence have been associated with alcohol use. The group's Alert No. 67 states that "just being an adolescent may be a key risk factor not only for starting to drink but also for drinking dangerously."
"Research shows that kids who expect drinking to be a pleasurable and acceptable experience are much more likely to drink than those who do not," said Brown. "The wetter environment, the harder it is for kids. That's why it's important that restaurants should look like restaurants and not like bars."
But Mark Goldman, former associate director for the NIAA, whose research Brown often cites, said he knows of no evaluations that have examined whether hiding bartenders is an effective protection against teen drinking.
"Research is always informative," said Goldman. "Until we test an issue, we don't know. We can make inferences we see in other research, but whether it specifically applies to partitions in restaurants is difficult to determine."
Goldman, now director of the Alcohol & Substance Use Research Institute at the University of South Florida, said research could be conducted to determine the effect of restaurant partitions on teens' perceptions of drinking. One way would be to survey adolescents leaving restaurants with and without partitions, such as the Cheesecake Factory.
The Cheesecake Factory has a large bar on display at its store in Fashion Place Mall in Murray, but the chain's Salt Lake location at the City Creek development will not have a visible bar when it opens next year. The City Creek restaurant was built after the Utah law went into effect, but the Murray location has a bar built before the latest law passed in full view.
"Science answers questions," said Goldman. "There are ways of addressing the question of whether restaurant partitions are effective using research."
Senate President Michael Waddoups said that because of state revenue shortfalls, he would not support taxpayer funding for a research project on restaurant partitions. But he would have no objection to private research money or someone in the university community doing an evaluation.
Why some adolescents drink
Risk taking • Propensity to seek out dangerous situations, experiment with alcohol.
Expectancies • How they view alcohol and its effects influences their drinking behavior.
Tolerance • May not get hangovers or experience other negative effects that adults do.
Personality • Rebelliousness, depression or behavior problems put them more at risk.
Hereditary • Some behavioral and physiological factors may be linked to genetics.
Environmental • Influence of parents, peers and the media can play a role.
Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Zion curtains in Utah
Restaurant partitions hiding bartenders first got their start more than 40 years ago.
In 1968, at the urging of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, voters killed an initiative to allow the sale of liquor by the drink in restaurants. As a compromise, diners could purchase liquor minibottles at special outlets and bring the alcohol back to their tables. But the liquor could not be visible to other patrons.
By 1990, the minibottle law was repealed in favor of bartenders pouring individual drinks, using measuring devices atop liquor bottles. To avoid over-the-bar service, servers had to bring drinks to diners' tables. The following year, diners were allowed to order drinks at restaurant counters, as long as the liquor was not served or mixed there.
To comply, some restaurants built back rooms with small windows where servers picked up the beverages. Other eateries built a hodge-podge of horizontal or perpendicular walls and still others erected see-through partitions of varying sizes.
"That's when the term Zion curtain surfaced," said Earl Dorius, compliance director at the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. "Barriers simply had to be sufficient to prevent over-the-counter, bartender-type service."
Through the years, rules became so tangled that when a diner ordered a glass of wine or water at a restaurant counter, the server had to walk around the bar and deliver the order from behind the customer. Partitions become a laughingstock, and much-photographed by tourists during the 2002 Olympics.
Lawmakers in turn, required eateries built after January 2010 to hide bartenders and open bottles of liquor from public view. And this year, they extended the law to include new beer-only restaurants, which also must erect back rooms or partitions to hide both draft taps and servers opening bottles of beer reminiscent of rules from the 1960s when liquor and beer taps were to be out of public view.