SALT LAKE CITY — The day after a House committee gutted a bill that would raise alcohol content by weight from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent for beer sold in Utah stores, House Republicans chortled during their caucus meeting over a power point presentation that began with other states with "weird" alcohol laws.
Rep. Tim Hawkes, chairman of the House Rules Committee, laughed along as he told of how Alaska has a law against giving liquor to a moose, or how in Ohio, alcohol advertisements are prohibited from portraying Santa Clause.
Hawkes' point? Utah isn't so "weird" for prohibiting grocery and convenience stores from selling stronger beer. What Utah is known for, though, is its low DUI and alcohol abuse rates.
"I'm proud of that culture, and I'm proud of that unique status," said Hawkes, R-Centerville.
Hawkes' presentation was meant to explain his position on why the beer bill "isn't just a business bill," as its sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, put it.
It turned serious when he said alcohol causes a number of societal problems, including addiction, liver damage, fetal alcohol syndrome and drunken driving.
"People lose their lives and limbs on our highways," Hawkes said.
His presentation was met warmly by his Republican peers, but some House Democrats weren't as amused. Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Salt Lake City, told Hawkes his presentation left him "a little offended" because it suggested people drink only to get drunk. He said there are many responsible drinkers in Utah who don't drink and drive.
Hawkes said that was not his intent, but there is a correlation between control of alcohol and social costs.
The caucus talks came the day after Stevenson's bill was changed by members of the House Health and Human Services Committee to create a task force to study the issue — but Stevenson protested, saying the move would kill the bill.
"The substitute is basically the land of no decision," he told reporters Wednesday, adding "in more general terms never, never land."
Stevenson described his bill as a "commerce bill," meant to address industry changes as major brewers are beginning to phase out 3.2 beers.
But Hawkes questioned those arguments, saying he's seen no shortage of such beer in grocery stores and gas stations yet. He also expressed concerns the stronger beer means Utahns could get drunk faster with less beer. Hawkes and other Republicans expressed concerns the stronger beer would also contribute to more underage drinking, DUIs, depression and suicide.
"There are lasting, permanent, life-altering effects from the abuse of alcohol," said Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, noting that his brother-in-law was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. He called the disease "horrible."
The bill to refer increasing the alcohol content limit to a task force is currently waiting for a vote on the House floor.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche