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Criticisms Change Happy Hour’s Focus

The perception of happy hour as a time for the rapid guzzling of discounted cocktails has dogged the restaurant industry, particularly in recent years when increased emphasis has been placed on liability for drunken driving. Happy hour promotions, such as two-for-one deals or discounts on particular drinks, have been denounced by such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), who maintain that such practices encourage excessive drinking.

However, a restaurant industry spokesman said restaurants and hotels are relying less on such gimmicks.

“There’s been a move away from price-oriented happy hours,” said Stan Kyker, the executive vice president of the California Restaurant Assn. “Now food-oriented happy hours are the more typical approach. Instead of offering discounted drinks, restaurants are saying, ‘Come in between 4 and 6 and enjoy our happy hour buffet. ‘ “

Kyker said the gradual change has not come about because of pressure from any governmental or legislative group, but is seen as “a way to increase traffic. That’s what happy hour is intended to do. It’s not intended to increase the consumption of alcohol by individuals. It’s intended to bring more people into the establishment and build a social atmosphere where people can talk and relax.”

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There are no laws governing happy hour practices in California, and the last time such legislation was proposed, in 1985, it was defeated in committee. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Newton Russell (R-Glendale), would have banned two-for-one drink offers, all-you-can-drink promotions, drinking contests with liquor prizes going to the winners, free drinks and other enticements.

Such a law would not be unique in the United States. At least 14 other states, including Massachusetts, Ohio and Michigan, have either banned or tightened regulation of happy hours.

After failing to win committee approval, Russell amended the bill to remove a misdemeanor penalty for a first-offense violation and opted instead to let the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control establish penalties by regulation.

After a yearlong study, Kyker said, the ABC issued a report “stating that they did not believe that they had the authority to impose anything on their own, and they recommended no changes.”

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Which, said Kay Lentz, administrative assistant to Russell, effectively put the lid on any anti-happy hour legislation, at least in the near future.

“After the department issued its report,” she said, “it was decided that we weren’t going to be able to pursue it. There was no support in the administration or the Legislature for it. We don’t have anything in the works now.”


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