Traverse City Record-Eagle

Life

January 10, 2013

States unhappy with laws limiting happy hours

During "happy hour" at the Summer Winter bar in Burlington, Mass., the bargain is on the bivalves, not the brews.

That's because Massachusetts legislators passed a law in 1984 banning bars from offering cut-price drinks. So James Flaherty, the bar's director of food and beverage, decided to use shellfish specials to draw customers.

"We've had to get creative by offering something other than a typical happy hour," he said. "Having a raw bar at the heart of the restaurant, we launched Oyster Happy Hour to appeal to the after work crowd with fresh, local selections and it's become a popular draw."

And Massachusetts isn't alone. The concept of happy hour — when bars offer lower prices or two-for-one specials — may seem like an American tradition, but is in fact illegal or restricted in quite a few places.

Laws vary by state, and even districts within states, so it's hard to get a handle on the national picture, but Ben Jenkins, vice president of government communications for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, has noted some recent activity aimed at updating happy hour laws.

A few states, including Oklahoma, Massachusetts and Virginia, recently have considered changes to existing restrictions. The bills failed, but are likely to re-emerge.

Meanwhile, happy hour became legal in Kansas last year after a 26-year ban. In 2011, Pennsylvania extended happy hour potentials from two to four hours and New Hampshire changed its law to allow establishments to advertise drinks specials.

DISCUS does not take a position on happy hour bills, but Jenkins sees the activity in the context of a larger modernization trend. "States across the country are updating their liquor laws to provide better consumer convenience and increased revenue without raising taxes," he says.

The patchwork nature of the laws is a holdover from Prohibition, when states were left to set regulations once the federal ban had been repealed.

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