While I don’t consider myself an expert on North Carolina’s laws governing alcohol, I do think I’m pretty well informed.
But the other day I learned something I probably should have known, considering my research on the subject.
No bar, grill, brasserie, bistro, or restaurant in North Carolina can have “Happy Hour,” which I — I’m also thinking I’m not alone here — always perceived as commonplace and perfunctory.
But not here.
Senate Bill 155, which the governor signed this past summer, eases some of the state’s onerous restrictions on alcohol, including giving restaurants the option — with local approval — to serve spirits beginning at 10 a.m. Sunday and allowing distillers to sell five bottles of their products after people tour their facilities.
The bill gave distillers, brewers, and restaurants a big boost, for sure, but lawmakers removed from the measure other important provisions, such as allowing distillers to sell directly to consumers online and allowing them to offer tastings of their products in state ABC stores.
The arguments against these provisions — I’m not forgetting the power of the ABC here — though mostly ideological, were misguided and missed the larger point: that loosening or eliminating regulations allows entrepreneurs to produce and the free market to flourish.
Opponents of happy hours argue many of the same points — binge drinking, more drunk drivers on the roads — yet these stifling rules reek of Prohibition-era ideals and an entrenched, immovable state system of state alcohol control.
This is not necessarily to criticize the ABC, as some of the North Carolina’s distillers prefer the uniform pricing and single distribution point, among other attributes. Many, though, want it to go away, although that possibility isn’t close to imminent.
Still, these arcane rules over alcohol make little sense, especially in a country and economy built on capitalism and the freedom to choose. Why deny restaurateurs the chance to generate business and build a deeper base of customers, who may often have a drink and an appetizer and decide to stay for dinner?
The ABC, in fact, has its answers, and it offers a handy fact sheet on the subject. Here’s some tidbits:
Q: Does North Carolina have happy hour for alcohol? No. North Carolina ABC permitted establishments may offer happy hour food specials only. ABC Rule 2S.0232 (b) states, “An on‐premise permittee or his agent shall not give away a drink or sell the drink for any period of time less than one full business day.”
Q: Can a business reduce the price of drinks for only one segment of the population (i.e., ladies night) as long as it is for the full business day? No. ABC Rule 2S.0232 (b) further states, “Free or reduced drinks under this provision shall be offered to all customers, not just a segment of the population.”
Q: Can I advertise alcoholic beverages on my freestanding marquee located at the street? No. ABC Rule 2S.1008 (a), (b) requires all exterior advertising for alcohol to be on “a single nonmechanical sign,” attached to the building on the licensed premises. Additional requirements apply.
A dwindling handful of states have similar prohibitions, yet these rules — and the people who make and implement them — inhibit competition by forcing businesses into the one-size-fits-all category, as does the ABC system. The keyword here is “control.”
Binge drinking and drunk driving are serious matters, and I don’t intend to minimize them.
But people are generally smarter about the perils associated with drinking and driving, and services such as Uber and Lyft give people an easy and inexpensive way home. As communities grew from within, people can walk to their favorite spots and leave their cars in the garage.
And though alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities increased by 1.7 percent from 2015 to 2016, accounting for 28 percent of 2016 overall fatalities, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that’s the lowest percentage since 1982, when NHTSA started reporting alcohol data.
But it’s frustrating that regulators and lawmakers often discount or ignore people’s ability to make rational decisions involving their very own lives.
Interestingly, the NHTSA, report says unrestrained passenger vehicle occupant fatalities increased by 4.6 percent, from 9,968 to 10,428. “[A]mong passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2016 who had known restraint use, almost half (48 percent) were unrestrained. For those passenger vehicle occupants who survived fatal crashes in 2016, only 14 percent were unrestrained compared to 48 percent who died.
We do have rules requiring seat belts. I did know that.