December 7, 2012

America is in crisis. A $16 trillion debt. Unemployment malingering around 8 percent. The looming fiscal cliff. The existence of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” It’s enough to drive anyone to drink. And given the recession, it’s never been more important to pinch pennies when going out.

Unfortunately, thanks to Virginia’s archaic laws, it’s illegal for bars to advertise happy hours.

While happy hours are legal, Virginia is one of only a handful of states that ban ads for them. Needless to say, that makes it harder for bars and restaurants to compete and let customers know about discounted drinks.

The law is exceptionally silly for Northern Virginia, since D.C. bars are just a few Metro stops away. Any establishment guilty of “illegal advertising of happy hour” could get its license suspended for a week and be slapped with a $500 fine.

In 2009, Virginia’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control decided to allow establishments to post one 17-inch-by-22-inch sign in their windows. This sign can use the words “happy hour” or “drink specials” and note the time of the happy hour. But in a huge blow to common sense, these signs can’t actually mention the drinks being discounted or their prices.

If a customer calls a bar, it’s legal to tell him or her about happy hour specials. But posting that information online or even as a voice-mail message “could be considered electronic media advertising.” All these restrictions violate the First and 21st Amendments.

This year, Del. David Albo (R-Fairfax) introduced H.B. 470, which would allow establishments to advertise happy hours on Web sites and with social media. His bill unanimously passed the House, but it was pulled in the Senate over concerns that minors could see the ads and be inspired to drink. Of course, the drinking age would still be 21.

Not to mention teens already see plenty of ads for alcohol on TV. Ever watch the Super Bowl?

Sadly, the nanny state doesn’t stop there. It’s illegal for bars and restaurants to hold happy hours between the hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. Plus, Virginia law prevents bars from giving away drinks, holding “two for one” deals or even allowing customers to have more than two drinks at one time, during happy hour. That doesn’t sound happy at all.

Virginia’s ban on advertising drink specials dates to 1985, amid growing concerns about drunken driving. One year earlier, Massachusetts, under then-Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), became the first state to outlaw happy hours. In a 2011 interview, Dukakis warned of dire consequences if the Bay State re-legalizes happy hours: “Unquestionably, people will lose their lives if this happens.”

Indeed, supporters of banning or strictly regulating happy hour argue these restrictions get people to drink less and, thus, they help crack down on drunken driving. However, a 1986 report in the Journal of Studies in Alcohol compared alcohol consumption in Ontario, Canada, before and after that province enacted a ban on happy hours. The researchers found there was “no significant preban-postban differences in alcohol consumption among all individuals nor within taverns. Aggregate alcohol sales data also indicated no significant trends over a similar period.”

Fortunately, other buzz-kill states are starting to loosen their liquor laws. Since July 1, happy hour has returned to Kansas after almost three decades. Meanwhile, in August, the Utah Hospitality Association won a partial victory against that state’s ban on happy hours.

Allowing bars and restaurants to advertise happy hours would restore free speech in the Old Dominion. And that’s something we could all drink to.

The writer is a fellow at the Institute for Justice.