On Sept. 9, 1983, 20-year-old Kathleen Barry was killed when she was dragged under a car in a restaurant parking lot in Braintree, Mass. The driver of the car, a friend of Barry, had just drunk at least seven beers, some of them awarded as prizes in a "name that tune" contest in the restaurant bar.
Because of incidents like this, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts banned "happy hours" in December 1984. This ban was a natural outgrowth of our state's campaign against drunk driving and has worked successfully in the year it has been in existence.
Happy hours were originally established to attract after-work business to restaurants and bars. At first, these businesses offered two drinks for the price of one, typically for a limited period -- say, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Over time, however, this practice expanded to include various kinds of promotions, such as "jumbo drinks," "giveaways," "chug-a-lug" contests and sales of unlimited drinks for a fixed price. By 1984 the average happy hour in Massachusetts was 3.6 hours long.
Obviously, the result of lower prices and bigger drinks was more drinking by patrons -- most of whom had to drive home in their inebriated states, increasing the risk of serious injury to themselves and to innocent bystanders. In 1984 in Massachusetts there were 445 motor-vehicle deaths and approximately 35,000 injuries. National estimates show that half of automobile-related fatalities involve drunk driving. We wanted to cut down on these tragedies, and limiting the drinking at happy hours seemed a logical approach.
Early in 1984 our state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission held hearings throughout Massachusetts to get public input on a happy hour ban. Testimony from city and town officials, bar owners and private citizens was overwhelmingly in favor of such a ban.
On the basis of these hearings, the ABCC concluded that lower drinks prices led to increased drinking; that happy hours tended to entice patrons to drink more than they otherwise would; and, more significantly, that because happy hours were of limited duration, patrons tended to drink more within a shorter span of time than they normally would.
Many bar and restaurant owners indicated to us that they only offered happy hours because they needed to do so to be competitive. A statewide ban seemed the best way to put all these establishments on a equal economic footing. Our state ban does not apply to private functions; instead, it is made a condition of the license to sell alcohol to the public.
Specifically, the regulations prohibit practices such as the offering of free drinks; the delivery of more than two drinks to one person at one time; the sale of an unlimited number of drinks for a fixed price; the sale of "jumbo" drinks at the price of regular drinks; the sale of drinks at prices lower than the listed prices; and the sale of drinks at a reduced price to particular groups of patrons. The regulations also prohibit the sale of beer and mixed drinks by the pitcher, except to more than two patrons, and outlaw contests involving drinking or the awarding of drinks as prizes.
Despite some initial grumbling from bar patrons, there seems to be wide support for the ban now. Far from causing bars or restaurants to lose business, the ban has stirred them to be more creative. Now at bars in Boston and Worcester and Pittsfield, signs proclaiming free appetizers and free entertainment have replaced ones offering extra drinks.
Wherever possible, regulations affecting private economic activity should be limited, if not avoided. However, when the safety of the public is in question, there can be no doubt as to the obligations of a state government to protect and uphold the public trust. Massachusetts is not opposed to promotional activities by bars and restaurants, but we are convinced that promotional activities aimed solely at encouraging excessive drinking constitute a threat to public safety and must be banned.
Even if government cannot end the carnage on our highways, we must at least try to lessen it. Limitations on happy hours go a long way toward attaining this goal.