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In Utah, booze is booming and changes may be looming

Published: 09/14/2015

By ROBERT GEHRKE | The Salt Lake Tribune

Booze is a booming business in Utah, with people drinking more and spending substantially more — better than double since 2002 — on wine and liquor.

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis of sales at Utah's retail liquor outlets points to a number of possible factors ­— perhaps most prominently, the state's changing demographics but also a rise in Utah-produced wine and liquor, as well as a flourishing tourism and hospitality industry.

Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at The Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, said a wave of people moving to Utah starting in the 1990s and continuing through 2008 brought an influx of non-Mormons to the state — people more likely to consume alcohol.

"We know that, looking at the cultural, linguistic and ethnic composition of the people who come in … that wave of migration from across the country was just so diverse," Perlich said. "You're pulling from a pool of people who are much, much less LDS than the resident population."

At the same time, the percentage of the population over the legal drinking age of 21 years old has grown, meaning there are more Utahns who can drink legally than there were in the early 2000s, she said.

The Tribune analysis of sales at Utah's 125 liquor outlets shows a 153 percent increase in liquor sales since 2002, from $156.2 million to $396 million. Even adjusted for inflation, sales have nearly doubled, and per capita spending on alcohol has grown by more than 50 percent.

In 2002, for example, the average Utahn drank 21 glasses of wine, 61 shots of hard liquor and 2 1/2 pints of heavy beer — the full-strength beer sold in liquor stores.

By last year, that consumption had jumped to 28 glasses of wine, just under 80 shots of hard liquor, and 4 1/2 pints of heavy beer. The figure does not capture the beer sold at grocery stores and convenience stores.

That doesn't mean Utahns are paying more for their alcohol. Again, adjusted for inflation, Utahns in 2002 spent $48.57 per gallon of alcohol they bought. In 2015, that figure actually dipped slightly to $46.99 per gallon.

Tourists • One factor driving the increased sales is the state's booming tourism and convention business, said Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake.

"One of the things that is sort of intuitive is that visitors come here for convention and leisure travel and they're a different demographic than the majority of folks that live in the state," he said, noting that "outside of Utah, drinking is not a moral issue. It's a social issue."

Beck said the state is expecting to set a record in hotel- room revenue this year, surpassing for only the second time the year the state hosted the 2002 Olympics, a key bench mark for visitor numbers.

But the state continues to struggle with the misperception nationally that its arcane liquor laws make it impossible to get a drink, Beck says, acknowledging that there are still some quirks that help perpetuate that reputation.

For example, guests can't order a Bloody Mary or mimosa on a Sunday morning before 10 a.m. Guests at a hotel restaurant can't take a glass of wine across the lobby or up to their room. And requiring restaurant patrons to order food — the so-called "intent to dine" — continues to be a problem.

"That is still a real hurdle for our guests and our visitors in particular," Beck said. "We still have a lot of issues that are why this perception exists and still exists."

The increased consumption also doesn't mean Utahns are drinking themselves into stupors and punishing their livers on a regular basis. Indeed, a 2009 study by the National Institutes of Health found that Utah's rate of consumption was — predictably — the lowest in the nation, nearly a gallon per person lower than the national average and less than half of what it is in the neighboring states of Nevada, Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming.

Nor has there been a spike in reckless behavior that some warn accompany higher alcohol consumption. In 2002, there were 56 fatalities involving drivers under the influence of alcohol, according to Utah Department of Public Safety statistics. Despite the growth in population, the trend has been generally downward, with a total of 23 DUI-related deaths in 2013, according to the most recent data available. Twitter: @RobertGehrke