Bars aren’t happy about social media ad ban

Why are bar and restaurant owners frowning when it comes to advertising “happy hour” specials?

Because in the age of Twitter and Facebook, Virginia law prohibits advertising drink specials using social media.
Drinking establishments can legally sell alcohol at lower prices until 9 p.m. The problem is, they aren’t allowed to advertise that fact in the media – not even on the Internet or with social media.

This year, legislation to end that ban looked like it was soaring through the Virginia General Assembly. But last month, the bill’s sponsor, Delegate David B. Albo, R-Springfield, decided to pull the plug on it for this session.

“A bunch of people who are against underage drinking were concerned about the bill,” Albo said. “I did not really understand their opposition because even if an underage person saw the website, they still could not go to the restaurant and purchase alcohol.” One of the opponents was Daniel Fabian, coordinator of alcohol and
substance abuse at the University of Richmond. He fears that advertising happy hours with social media would prompt more young people to drink.

“If the bill would have passed, our biggest concern was about the increase of overconsumption of underage drinkers,” Fabian said.

House Bill 470, which passed the House unanimously on Feb. 10, would have allowed drinking establishments “to post on a website or social media site maintained or administered by the licensee or his agent information about the time periods during which alcoholic beverages are being sold at reduced prices and to include in connection there with the terms ‘Happy Hour’ or ‘Drink Specials.’ ”

Albo said he thought the measure was pretty innocuous.

“The bill would not have allowed anyone to promote anything,” he said. “It merely would allow a restaurant to put its happy hour specials on its own website. That website may be a Facebook site or a regular website.”

But on Feb. 17, Albo decided to withdraw his bill, and the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee voted unanimously to strike HB 470 from consideration.

“It just got too controversial,” Albo said.

Since the 1980s, state law has barred liquor license holders from publicly advertising happy hour and drink specials outside their establishment or through electronic media.

In 2009, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board approved of bars and restaurants displaying a 17-inch-by-22-inch sign in the window of their business. That sign can say the business offers happy hour at a certain time – but nothing else.

Information advertising the drink specials can be posted only inside the establishment, but not where they can be seen from outside.

Bars and restaurants can’t put any of this information online. Such restrictions irk people in the business.

“It’s really annoying that we can’t put drink specials on our own website,” said Bart Carrique, beverage director for Cha Cha’s Cantina in Richmond’s Shockhoe Slip entertainment district. “It is a hinder on our sales at promoting our industry, period.”

The ABC Board defines electronic media as “any system involving the transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, television, electromagnetic, photo-electronic, or photo-optical system, including, but not limited to, radio, television, electronic mail, and the Internet.”

The board restricts happy hour advertising because it is concerned about overconsumption of alcohol, underage drinking, drunken driving and other behavior.

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