Virginia agrees to lift ban on alcohol ads on billboards

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 8:57 PM

RICHMOND - Virginia has agreed to lift a long-standing ban on alcohol advertisements on billboards, a response to a lawsuit from a company that said the restriction violated its freedom of speech.

Under a consent decree quietly entered Jan. 7 with Lamar, a billboard business, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Department agreed to scrap its regulations on outdoor alcohol advertising.

The company sued Virginia in September. Although the litigation challenged a ban on billboard advertising, the settlement means that some other limits on alcohol ads have also been suspended, at least temporarily.

But under the agreement, liquor companies and retailers now will face some restrictions on alcohol ads until more comprehensive regulations can be written. For now, ads that depict cartoon characters and that show people who appear underage or who are drinking are banned. Signs posted within 500 feet of a school, playground or house of worship are also prohibited.

The state had generally banned outdoor alcohol advertising except at stadiums, coliseums and racetracks as well as on store windows. Officials had restricted the size of signs and banned outdoor notices of happy hours.

The Virginia ABC board will begin to write new regulations that could pass legal muster in coming weeks, a spokeswoman for the department said.

Spokeswoman Becky Gettings said ABC settled after receiving legal advice from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), who indicated that the state ban was not constitutionally defensible. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) also signed off.

Cuccinelli's office cited a 2001 Supreme Court decision that invalidated bans on tobacco advertising.

Gettings said ABC settled to save the expense of continued litigation, including the cost of Lamar's legal fees if Virginia lost the suit.

The settlement was praised by the alcohol industry, where Virginia's guidelines had been considered out of step with the nation.

Only Vermont, New Hampshire and Oklahoma continue to ban alcohol ads on billboards along highways. Maryland allows outdoor alcohol advertising, with some restrictions, a spokesman for the comptroller's office said.

"This is really nothing more than a vindication of the alcohol beverage industry's commercial free-speech rights, which have been affirmed by the United States Supreme Court in a number of cases," said Frank Coleman, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

But some lawmakers said they feared the settlement went too far, particularly because the agreement strikes rules that do not relate to billboards.

"All we had to do was invalidate the billboard rules - and we invalidated all the advertising rules," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who sits on a House committee that oversees alcohol laws. "The dispute was only over billboards. . . . If we don't do something, it's the wild West out there."

Legislators, who are in the final days of their annual session, may make a last-minute attempt to write stiffer advertising regulations into law.

Albo said he was also concerned that lawmakers learned only this week of a change that was enacted last month.

Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield), however, said he was not worried by the settlement, noting that local governments retain significant power to regulate signs in their areas.

"I'm not sure it's going to have that significant of an impact," he said. "Let's face it: Distilled spirits are in magazines, newspapers. What's the difference?"

© 2011 The Washington Post Company