Utah bars bought less alcohol after going public

Utah bars bought less alcohol after going public

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Opening Utah's bars to the public this summer didn't result in an increase in alcohol sales.

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control said Tuesday that sales of full-strength beer, wine and liquor to bars declined 9.2 percent in July and August compared with the same period last year.

The decline in sales follows a national trend of Americans spending less on alcohol at bars and restaurants and more on alcohol that is consumed at home amid difficult economic times. The DABC also reported Tuesday that alcohol consumption in the state increased from 2.2 gallons per person in the fiscal year that ended June 30, up from 2.1 gallons the year before.

The significant decline in alcohol sales to bars largely came as a surprise following statewide celebrations and national media blitzes marking the changes in Utah's liquor laws.

On July 1, a new state law went into effect eliminating the need for patrons to fill out an application and pay a fee for the right to enter bars, which were technically private clubs.

The change was made in an effort to boost the state's $7 billion a year tourism industry and make the state appear a little less odd to people and businesses considering moving here.

Utah was the only state in the country that regulated its bars as private clubs. A separate membership, costing at least $4 for a temporary three week membership and $12 for an annual membership, was required for every private club.

Some conservative lawmakers and morals groups in this heavily Mormon state had contended that the private club memberships were necessary to keep minors out of bars and reduce driving under the influence. They feared that allowing someone to walk into a bar without filling out a form once a year would lead to an explosion of alcohol consumption.

"The Legislature was quite concerned in the beginning that if private clubs were to go away there would be an increase in consumption," said DABC chairman Sam Granato. "The reverse happened."

While the DABC sold less alcohol to bars, it's unclear how much alcohol was sold to bars overall. The state sells full-strength beer, wine and liquor to bars. Private distributors sell bars less alcoholic beers -- those containing 3.2 percent alcohol by weight. That's the only type of draft beer allowed in Utah and the only kind that can be sold to bars already chilled. It is also the only kind of beer available in grocery and convenience stores.

In exchange for eliminating the private club system, bars must now scan the IDs of anyone who appears younger than 35 to make sure it is real. Bars are required to keep a record of information obtained from the scan -- include name, age, sex and address -- on file for seven days for use by law enforcement.

Many bars have reported that they're seeing more people come in to have one or two beers than they did in the past now that the private club system has been eliminated. In the past, it wasn't uncommon to see tourists walk out of a bar once they learned it was for members only, although anyone could become a member.

DABC officials also say bars have noticed an increase in food sales for the same reason.

The Utah Hospitality Association, a trade group representing the state's bar industry, said it's difficult to pinpoint exactly why there's been a decline in sales, but said that even if the economy was unscathed this summer the association wouldn't have expected a significant increase in sales because of the law change.

"The average person in Utah was underwhelmed by the change," said association attorney Lisa Marcy. "You take away the incentive and all the sudden it's not so fun anymore."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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