Choking on Alcohol Commission’s New Concoction

By By John Morley

By John Morley

Chalk one up for the Constitution. Let freedom ring. It’s a new era for the First Amendment. Utahns can now exercise their God-given right to make money off getting people drunk.

This is the message sent by advocates of the state’s new alcohol advertising standards. Issued Oct. 12 by Utah’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABC Commission), the new standards relax the state’s legendarily tough laws.

The guidelines respond to a ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last July. In the ruling, judges called the state’s advertising restrictions “irrational” and possibly unconstitutional.

From the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the case reverted to Utah District Court Judge David Sam. He ordered specific amendments to bring the guidelines into compliance with the higher court’s decision.

In response, the ABC Commission drew up a temporary set of rules, which went into effect in early August. It then hunkered down for two months of public criticism and comment before issuing a final decision on Oct. 12.

Under the new guidelines, restaurants can display booze in full view of patrons. Billboards can promote distillers, but private clubs cannot, and restaurants can hand out drink lists without customer solicitation. Restaurants can also display drink menus outside.

Still on the books, though, are standards restricting depictions of the act of drinking. The rules also ban the “use of appealing characters” in alcohol advertising.

Private clubs still have to remain private, and they can’t use promotional gimmicks to sell alcohol.

The new guidelines are moderate and reasonable. Placing drink prices on menus will remove an unnecessary burden from social drinkers. Removing restrictions on giving out wine lists will change the state’s image.

For vacationers or business people traveling in Utah, the most glaring difference between this state and others is the absence of liquor prices on meal menus. This will all change, and proponents of looser alcohol laws should be happy.

For distillers and club owners, though, the promotion of freedom to sell alcohol is a constitutionally mandated duty. The reforms issued, they say, are only the beginning.

Winning liberty in booze peddling is like George Washington crossing the Delaware. Coming next is an attack on restrictions of ads showing drinking scenes and advocating club memberships.

Brian Barnard, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents several Utah alcohol sellers, explains the reason. He says public opinion “is not a basis for taking away the First Amendment right to advertise beer, wine and distilled spirits.”

Barnard’s reasoning, like that of the rest of his cohorts, is wrong. Give me a break?the right to advertise beer?

This self-righteous interpretation of the First Amendment would raise a few eyebrows among the founding fathers. Madison, Washington, Jefferson and pals didn’t spend an arduous summer in Philadelphia writing the Constitution so a handful of bar owners could make more money. Nor did the Continental Army fight and die so slick marketing could draw in underage drinkers.

Granted, the technicalities of advertising laws are complex. A maze of loopholes and rulings surrounds the First Amendment. Depending on how judges apply constitutionality standards, there may be some merit to the claim that Utah’s alcohol marketing rules violate the First Amendment.

But, legal niceties aside, alcohol advertising poses serious ethical and political problems. The promotion of a substance with proven negative side effects is deeply troubling. Although freer alcohol advertising may be legal, it may not be moral.

Alcohol is not evil, nor are the people who drink it. But its myriad negative social consequences are indisputable.

Anti-alcohol advocates have long blamed alcohol for all sorts of social ills. The correlation between alcohol and domestic violence is almost indisputable. And last year, over 16,000 people died in alcohol-related car accidents?that?s nearly 40 percent of all traffic fatalities.

Over-consumption ruins countless careers and educations. Powerful alcohol corporations, interested only in profit, have long ignored their responsibility to the public good.

It is true that people will come into contact with alcohol regardless of advertising. No one can avoid the influence of liquor, even in the most sheltered communities. But advertising clearly increases the public’s willingness to consume and over-consume.

If it didn’t, why would alcohol sellers be so adamant about loosening advertising restrictions? Depictions of drinking and ads showing alcohol as positive and harmless are not aimed at informing responsible drinkers. They are intended to increase consumption, especially among the young.

Too often, U.S. citizens see protected free speech as correct speech. If someone has a right to say it, we think it must be right. Liquor industry advocates claim alcohol advertising is crucial to political freedom. They use doomsday slippery-slope scenarios to justify otherwise unjustifiable civil liberties.

Why do we persist in the laughable assumption that depictions of people getting smashed are critical to our political freedom? Why don’t we see alcohol marketing for what it is?an effort by large corporations to subjugate the general public to ruinous addictions?

The peddlers of social destruction ought to swallow something other than alcohol?their own overblown pride.

John welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].