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October 7th, 2009 JONATHAN CROWL | News Stories
 

The Bitching Hour

Will the Internet kill Oregon’s restrictions on Happy-Hour promotions?

     
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IMAGE: Jason Rainey

When the Oregon Liquor Control Commission meets next week to review happy-hour restrictions made outdated by the Web, Oba Restaurante manager Randy Noia says it’s a chance to end the charade.

The problem, according to Noia? That his Pearl District restaurant can’t promote happy hour outside the property but that those promotions can proliferate on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, because OLCC lacks the manpower to monitor Internet advertising and publicity.

Oba is one of many Portland-area bars that use Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to advertise events and bring in business. And like many other bar and restaurant owners, Noia has had his fill of what he views as an antiquated rule. His solution: End all policing of the 24-year-old happy-hour restrictions.

“I can’t see them having the financing to fairly police all bars and restaurants equally,” Noia says of the OLCC. “So then you’re going to end up with selective enforcement. Is that partial? Impartial? Who gets picked on? Who do they determine they’re going to police?”

Current happy-hour rules enforced by 42 OLCC inspectors restrict any of Oregon’s 14,000 licensed bars and restaurants from advertising happy-hour drink specials beyond the interior of a property. Advertising within the building may not be visible from its exterior. The term “happy hour” is permissible on external advertising only when applied exclusively to food specials.

Meanwhile, the Internet has greatly diminished the OLCC’s enforcement abilities and created infinite avenues for patrons to learn about happy-hour deals.

Bars and restaurants can create their own pages to keep their patrons informed of specials, whether they be event-, food- or drink-related.

Even when venues themselves don’t advertise, information tends to spread like wildfire online, inhibiting the OLCC’s aims of minimizing the alcohol advertising that makes its way to minors and that it says encourages binge drinking.

“Trying to monitor all [licensed drinking establishments’] online happy-hour usage is incredibly cumbersome,” says OLCC spokeswoman Christie Scott.

A particular challenge to the OLCC’s enforcement efforts is the compilation and publication by third-party businesses of happy-hour specials throughout the Portland area.

Websites such as barflymag.com and urbandrinks.com, and publications like Portland Happy Hour Guidebook and WW’s annual Drink Guide, have tried to provide current directories of happy-hour specials to Portlanders.

Scott said the OLCC plans to hear from alcohol-moderation groups, law enforcement and bar owners before making its decision on happy-hour regulations, which could come as soon as December.

The agency does intend to seek the most effective remedy, even if it means abolishing happy-hour rules altogether, says Scott.

“If it means more advertising of alcohol and alcohol prices, we’re against it,” says Pete Schulberg, spokesman for substance-abuse prevention nonprofit Oregon Partnership. “There’s never been a time where there’s been more alcohol advertising.”

But whether the OLCC can still maintain a level of governance validating its use of 42 taxpayer-employed inspectors in the face of growing Web obstacles remains to be seen.

Ultimately, the issue is not necessarily whether the OLCC can control the bars and restaurants, but whether the agency can succeed in damming the online flow of advertising.

“I don’t think they’ll repeal the rule—I think they may take the term ‘happy hour’ out of an automatic violation, but I can’t imagine temperance groups allowing a full repeal,” says Bill Perry, director of government relations for the Oregon Restaurant Association.

“In today’s media age, this information has been out there and will always be out there,” Perry says. “I think it’s a bad allocation of their time.”


FACT: The OLCC meeting is open to the public and will be held Oct. 15-16 at OLCC’s main office, 9079 SE McLoughlin Blvd., Room 103A. See oregon.gov/OLCC for details.
 
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