Happy hour not so joyous in all states

Concerns about underage drinking curb specials in some states, while others revel in reduced-price drinks.

By Jason Notte Jan 10, 2013 9:49AM

Image: Couple ordering meal in restaurant -- NULL/CorbisAny drinker who believes that happy hour food or drink discounts are matters of settled law in the United States has never tried to order a beer in Massachusetts at 6 p.m.

Despite recent efforts by lawmakers in such states as Oklahoma, Virginia and Massachusetts -- where bars and restaurants have been prohibited from offering cut-rate drinks and food-and-drink specials since 1984 -- happy hour still isn't universally embraced throughout America.

While rules against such events are relaxing in certain regions, opposition to happy hour goes as high as some federal agencies.

U.S. happy hour law is still a muddled cocktail of state and municipal legislation left over from the days when Carrie Nation was taking an ax to whiskey barrels and cities were installing "temperance" water fountains to steer men away from the devil drink. Those post-Prohibition laws are also in constant flux, as Kansas proved last year when it legalized happy hour drink specials for the first time in 26 years.

Back in 2011, New Hampshire inadvertently thumbed its nose at its teetotaling neighbors in Massachusetts when it changed its happy hour law and allowed establishments to advertise their specials. That same year, Pennsylvania extended happy hour from two hours to four in a state where alcohol law requires beer to be sold in state stores.

"States across the country are updating their liquor laws to provide better consumer convenience and increased revenue without raising taxes," Ben Jenkins, vice president of government communications for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, told the Associated Press.

That's far from true in every case. Georgia has no state ban on happy hour, but leaves regulation of such events up to local governments. Utah updated its alcohol laws in 2009 to loosen restrictions on alcohol content in beer, legalize home brewing of beer and disband "private club" bars that required drinkers to pay a one-time membership fee for service. The state did, however, ban happy hours when it further updated the law in 2011.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, actively opposes happy hour promotions and offers opponents advice on how to convince lawmakers to restrict or ban such events. The agency argues that happy hours encourage underage drinking and cites a Harvard School of Public Health College alcohol study that found a correlation between lower drink prices and binge drinking at 119 U.S. colleges. Their argument for restrictions is as follows:

Promotions, such as happy hours, drinking contests, and "all-you-can-drink" specials, encourage overconsumption by reducing the cost of alcohol, with often tragic consequences. Happy hour restrictions are aimed at reducing these consequences by prohibiting any drink promotions, including happy hours.

"Some communities have issues of morality regarding promoting the drinking of alcohol or concerns regarding the kinds of behavior that can come from drinking too much," Kyle-Beth Hilfer, an advertising and marketing attorney with the New York-based law firm Collen IP, told the Associated Press.

Since that happy hour trepidation varies from one area to another, laws governing happy hour are similarly scattered. Fears about underage drinking scuttled an attempt by Virginia lawmakers within the last year to update happy hour rules dating back to 1984 that prevent happy hour ads in print, television and electronic media. Alcohol-sensitive Alabama, meanwhile, has no problem with happy-hour discounts, but draws the line at two-for-one and all-you can-drink deals.

On the other end of the spectrum, Oregon is replete with happy hour promotions, but forbids bars and restaurants from advertising them. Colorado, meanwhile, sees no reason to regulate happy hour on the state level and doesn't address it specifically.

The unstable state of U.S. happy hour law means fluctuations of millions of dollars in tax revenue as well as income for companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD), MolsonCoors (TAP), Diageo (DEO) and Beam (BEAM), but also constant wrangling over the moral and legal implications of reduced drink prices. It also means that folks in Portland, Ore., are getting a buck off their beer and a deal on happy-hour portions of appetizers while folks across the country in Boston pay full price for what's in their pint glass while making due with buck-a-shuck oyster specials.

How happy patrons are during said hour has a whole lot to do with where they're spending it.

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Jan 10, 2013 1:17PM
Regulation, regulation, and more regulation.  When does it ever end.  Our Freedoms are slowly being taken away from us and most of us don't even realize it.  I'm sure the people who approve of this don't really understand the bigger picture.  Regulation=revenue and regulation is mostly unconstitutional.  The right to life liberty and the persuit of happiness is becoming increasingly harder and harder to find.
Jan 10, 2013 2:09PM
what difference does it make? It should be the establishments choice. They pay the same amount for the alcohol and food, they can choose to charge what they want. If they choose to cut the price in half for a specific time of their opperating hours to draw in a crowd and have slightly less profits but more customers during that time, its not the governments business. As long as they are not selling alcohol to minors
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