Drinking (by others) was on the mind of Utah legislators Wednesday sometimes in ways that could cheer drinkers, at others in ways that may bring them sobering concern.
• Lawmakers gave a frosty reception to a proposal to raise Utah's beer tax automatically every year to match inflation. Amid opposition from anti-tax groups, retailers and the beer industry, a committee declined to pass or kill the bill. Its sponsor still plans to run it in the 2014 session.
• Legislators listened, without taking action, to a call for Utah to become the first state to reduce the blood-alcohol content (BAC) to be considered drunk from 0.08 to 0.05. Utah was the first in the nation to drop it from 0.10 to 0.08 three decades ago. A researcher brought in by the conservative Sutherland Institute says most European countries have dropped the limit, and it decreased drunken driving.
• An annual report says drunken-driving fatalities in Utah fell last year from 39 to 20. But deaths from drug-related driving under the influence increased from 30 to 37 making some lawmakers wonder if drug use should be targeted more now in advertising.
Beer Tax •Rep. Jack Draxler, R-North Logan, is pushing a bill to index taxes on wholesale beer sales to match the Consumer Price Index, and to cap it at 4 percent annually. Last year, the CPI was 2.9 percent. If his bill were in place, it would have raised Utah's current beer tax of 41 cents a gallon by 1.19 cents.
But the Interim Health and Human Services Committee declined to pass or kill the bill. "I don't view that as a setback," Draxler said, adding he will push it in the general session. "All the issues were laid out today by all sides, so that will help inform a full debate."
The wholesale beer tax has not been boosted in 10 years, Draxler said, causing it to lose value every year to inflation. Draxler wants to earmark money from a tax increase to programs to help prevent underage and binge drinking.
Separate from the sales tax paid by beer drinkers at the retail level, the wholesale beer tax in Salt Lake County now averages 6.85 cents per dollar of purchase.
Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association, said the proposed tax increase could lead more people to buy beer out of state. At 41 cents a gallon, Utah's wholesale beer tax is 14th highest in the nation, he said, much higher than in surrounding states. Wyoming's beer tax is the nation's lowest at 2 cents a gallon.
Draxler said his proposed increase is so small it would cost drinkers far more in gasoline to buy beer out of state than to pay the tax.
Utah Taxpayers Association Vice President Royce Van Tassell said his group opposes tax hikes in general as well as earmarking revenue for specific purposes. He said it is wiser to let alcohol-prevention programs compete with other priorities in annual appropriations fights than to give them their own funding source.
Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retailer Merchants Association and the Utah Food Industry Association, echoed those objections.
Lower BAC • In the Interim Transportation Committee, a call to lower the blood-alcohol content to be considered drunk was made by James C. Fell, a senior research scientist for the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, Md. He was brought to the Legislature by the Sutherland Institute.
Fell reviewed studies in the Netherlands, France, Austria and Australia after those countries lowered their limits to 0.05, concluding all showed "lowering BAC limits reduces drinking driver fatal crashes."
He added that 63 countries have BAC levels of 0.05 or less, while 21 countries have an 0.08 limit. Groups endorsing a lower limit include the World Medical Association, American Medical Association and the National Transportation Safety Board.
The European studies show a small increase in arrests would come from a change, Fell noted, but not enough to overburden courts. Still, the lower level "sends a message to the public that society is getting tougher on impaired driving," he added, citing 0.05 as the level when most studies gauge drivers to be impaired.
The American Beverage Institute, an association of restaurants, later issued a statement opposing lowering the BAC limit, saying most people arrested for DUI have blood-alcohol rates far above the current 0.08 level.
"Utah already has very strict penalties for drunk driving and stringent restrictions on alcohol sales," said Sarah Longwell, the institute's managing director. "Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hard-core drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel."
DUI report • The Transportation Committee also received an annual report on driving under the influence from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. The report included data showing the average BAC of those arrested was 0.146. The highest was 0.42, more than five times the legal limit.
It said alcohol-related DUI fatalities dropped, but DUI fatalities related to drugs increased. Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, suggested state advertising against drinking and driving should maybe refocus to carry a message against drug-related DUIs.
Mary Lou Emerson, director of the Utah Substance Abuse Advisory Council, said some people may not realize the risk of using drugs and driving because prescription and over-the-counter drugs are legal.
The report also said 12,227 DUI arrests were made in fiscal 2013, which ended June 30. That was 6 percent fewer than the previous year. About 72 percent of those arrested were male, and 12 percent were under the legal drinking age of 21.
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When taxes on alcohol rise, consumption and related health and economic problems go down, a Maryland researcher told Utah legislators Wednesday.
Making drinkers pay more for beer, wine and spirits reduces drinking, David H. Jernigan, with the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, told members of the Business and Labor Interim Committee.
Utah has one of the highest rates of binge drinking defined as five or more drinks in a row in the nation, especially among teenagers.
Jernigan, brought to Utah by the conservative Sutherland Institute, said one option would be to tie liquor taxes to the Consumer Price Index.
The committee took no action on Jernigan's presentation, but several legislators wondered if higher prices would send drinkers out of state to purchase alcohol. Jernigan said in his research "there have been no cross-border effects."