The Brown Jug Bills

Flipping the Script on Liability

In the last article I talked about the consequences restaurants and bars can face when their patrons misbehave. A few states have also passed laws that run the other way, allowing retailers to sue customers who break a law in their establishments. Specifically, these laws target underage drinkers and the growth of realistic fake IDs, aiming to provide an extra incentive for bars and liquor stores to be vigilant, and an extra disincentive for minors.

Alaska was the first state to pass one of these laws, in 2001. Retailers can sue an underage customer (or their parents, if they’re under 18) for up to $1,500. The law was pushed by the Brown Jug chain liquor store in Alaska, so the legislation became known as the Brown Jug Bill. As the idea spread to other states, it’s held onto the nickname. Wisconsin is the only other state I know of that has actually adopted a similar law, in 2013, but plenty of others have considered it.

Brown Jug bills get introduced as a form of underage drinking prevention, and indeed, underage drinking has declined in Alaska since the law passed. When the state passed the bill, though, it did so as part of a broader slate of measures aimed at the state’s notoriously high problem drinking numbers, including a big bump in the beer tax and increased age compliance checks. It’s hard to tell what effect, if any, the Brown Jug law itself has had. Many alcohol policy experts don’t see it as a good solution, arguing that higher penalties don’t do much for drug-related issues like DWI or underage drinking.

Effective or not, the Brown Jug bills represent a small reversal of the trend towards increased liability for bars and package stores. They respond to an evolving technology (fake IDs) that makes it harder to blame the store for selling to someone underage. By themselves the laws are unlikely to make a big impact on underage drinking, but maybe that’s not really the point. It is telling that the debate about these laws has often pitted industry lobbying groups (who are for it) against public health groups. It seems to me that the Brown Jugs are more insurance for business owners than underage drinking prevention. Maybe that’s fine, but it does make the whole exercise feel a little disingenuous.

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