Va.’s happy hour law makes some unhappy

WASHINGTON – Chef Geoff’s claims to have “The Best Happy Hour” in D.C. and Chevy Chase.

The happy hour is just as great at their Tysons Corner location, they say, but the restaurant can’t advertise those drink or food specials online or using its Twitter or Facebook accounts.

In the state of Virginia, it is illegal for bars and restaurants to advertise happy hour online or via any type of social media. The law has been on the books since the early 1980s, before the Internet was as omnipresent as it is today and before anyone knew what a Tweet or Facebook post was.

“You can’t really tell anyone about (happy hour) outside the four walls of your restaurant,” says Geoff Tracy, the owner of all four Chef Geoff locations.

Last month, Tracy lit up Twitter when he tweeted about the law from the @ChefGeoffs Twitter account.

“I find the law to be silly. I always found the law to be silly,” Tracy says. “The fact that you can have a happy hour but you can’t talk about it seems strange.”

Tracy isn’t the only Virginia restaurant or bar owner who is frustrated by what they call an antiquated law.

Earlier this year, on behalf of its members, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington worked with Virginia State Del. David Albo, R-Springfield, to craft bill HB 470 that would have required the Virginia Alcohol and Beverage Control Board to adopt regulations allowing bars and restaurants to advertise their happy hour specials on a website or social media site.

The bill passed the House unanimously, but was pulled in the state senate by Albo.

“My bill said a restaurant can put its happy hours on its own website,” Albo says. “The bill started running into problems because people were wondering whether or not a social media site is a website.”

He was contacted by groups concerned about underage drinking and disseminating drink specials via social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The concern being that social media sites are a prevalent form of communication among young adults.

“I respectfully disagreed with them,” Albo says. “Even if a person who was underage saw the happy hour prices, they still couldn’t drink.”

But he says he agreed that the bill needed more review because “you really can’t stop the dissemination if the website is on Facebook.”

“I think the restaurateurs have a good point. They should be able to advertise what’s going on at their restaurants,” Albo says. “But we need to be able to figure out how to do that without having it automatically blasted out to everybody who happens to be on a fan page of a social media site.”

Lisa Adler, a Fairfax County resident, is one of Albo’s constituents who contacted him about the pending bill. Adler is president of the Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County. The group’s mission is to prevent violence, alcohol and drug use by youth and young adults.

“We had concerns because there is really consistent research … that has shown an increase in happy hours leads to an increase in binge drinking and drinking and driving,” she says.

The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health notes “Research clearly indicates that, in addition to parents and peers, alcohol advertising and marketing have a significant impact on youth decisions to drink.”

Adler says the concern is about advertising the drink specials on social media sites, predominantly used by young adults.

“Our concern with this in particular is, right now, establishments are only allowed to advertise things like happy hours within their four walls. If they were all of a sudden allowed to advertise on websites and able to get Twitter accounts and start to tweet these messages, it would just go viral and it might really exacerbate the problem that already exists,” she says.

“The message gets out quickly enough as it is from young person to young person because they are so adept at social media,” Adler says. “We were concerned that this would give them one more avenue to expose underage drinkers and binge drinkers to more than they need to consume.”

Mark Tate, government relations consultant for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, says the intent of the bill is not to encourage underage drinking. But they agreed to work with the concerned groups.

“We’re very sensitive to underage drinking. We’re very sensitive to anything that looks like encouraging excessive drinking or underage drinking and we don’t want it to be seen as or to be used as a tool to encourage that,” he says.

That being said, Tate adds, he has not seen a study that specifically links advertising happy hours and increased underage or binge drinking.

“It’s still our responsibility to regulate who drinks in our establishments, whether they drink excessively or responsibly,” he says. “It’s a shared responsibility of restaurateurs to make sure there’s not excessive drinking or drunk driving.”

While D.C. and Maryland don’t have laws specifically preventing advertising of happy hour specials online or on social media sites, many states have some sort of restriction on happy hours, says Curtis Coleburn, chief operating officer of the Virginia Department of ABC.

The state of Massachusetts has banned happy hours since 1984. More recently, the state of Utah banned happy hours in 2012 and Illinois restricts certain drink specials.

And until 2008, Virginia had a law prohibiting restaurants from serving sangria. Several Northern Virginia restaurants were charged by the ABC with violating the law. The General Assembly passed SB 584, allowing restaurants with mixed beverage licenses to make sangria.

Coleburn says the Virginia ABC board is in the process of reviewing happy hour regulations. They have gathered comments from the public and all interested parties over the past six months.

“The whole idea of restrictions on happy hour is because of the fact that happy hours can be an invitation to over-indulge. The idea that reduced prices might get somebody to drink more than they would if they had pay the full price. That’s the reason behind restricting happy hour,” he says.

Several years ago, the board did pass an amendment that allows bars and restaurants to post a 17-by-22 sign on the outside of the building to advertise happy hour specials.

During the current review process, the board will decide whether to keep the existing law, repeal it or amend it in some way, Coleburn says. A recommendation from the board will most likely come early next year.

Tracy says he’s glad more attention is being focused on the happy hour law.

“It raises some questions as to why this law exists. Just because laws exist doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be questioned,” he says. “Running restaurants is hard enough without having to jump over these additional hurdles that sometimes get thrown in the way.”

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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