Happy Hour Laws: States’ Quest To Keep People Happy, But Not That Happy

Ah, the happy hour. A classic way to unwind from a long day, gossip with coworkers, and ensure that absolutely nothing productive will happen with the rest of your evening. While the phrase “happy hour” first popped up in military circles in the early 20th century, referring simply to a leisure period, the practice of offering drink and food specials during a few hours of the day as a way to draw customers is a mid-century invention. The Depression and World War Two were over, the economy was booming, drinks culture was reemerging, and bars were looking for new, post-Prohibition-legal-framework-compliant ways to get people through the door, especially during off-peak hours. Happy hours really start emerging in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with a reference in a 1959 Saturday Evening Post article often cited as the first time such bar specials were referred to by that term in print.

After that era’s three martini lunch Mad Men, of course, came the MADD women. In the 1970s and 1980s drunk driving laws, universal minimum drinking age requirements, and other enforcement and regulatory changes were enacted in response to our national misbehavior. Anything the booze industry was doing that might encourage drinking was under scrutiny, including happy hours and other drink specials. Massachusetts became the first state to ban happy hours in 1984, and soon states and cities across the country were either eliminating the practice entirely or severely restricting it. Laws limiting the number of consecutive hours a bar could serve specials, or what hours of the day they could do so, became almost universal. Creative specials like free drinks for pool tournament winners or buy-one-get-ones were also quickly off the table. While everybody got stricter, there’s still plenty of legal variety between the states. In North Carolina, only food can be discounted, not drinks; in Virginia, you can have a happy hour, but you can’t really advertise it; and in a few states, bars have skirted vaguely written bans by offering discounts during whole days, rather than a few hours during a day .

Like a lot of other liquor laws, happy hour restrictions have been rolled back a bit over the last decade, including the elimination of happy hour bans in Illinois, Oklahoma and Kansas. Each time a roll-back is considered, it awakens a classic ideological struggle between public safety and personal liberty – and about whether the bans actually do anything. While it makes intuitive sense that discounted booze would encourage more drinking, which would lead to more bad decisions, what little research there is on the topic doesn’t suggest that’s the case. A 2005 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that alcohol-related deaths had fallen at the same rate across the country, with no correlation to a state’s happy hour laws.

I’m sympathetic to the “try anything and everything” approach of 1980s reformers. Drunk driving was a public health emergency, and they understandably wanted to try every angle in their quest to stop it. With a few decades of regulatory experience under our belts, though, we can fairly evaluate what worked, and what didn’t make a difference. Lowering the allowable BAC works. A massive public awareness campaign works. Heavier, and more heavily enforced, penalties work. Raising the minimum drinking age is more complicated (and a subject of a future article), but in many ways it works, too. Happy hour bans? At this point there’s no evidence that they’re doing anything to help.

Sources: this Money article about statewide bans (all referenced laws were verified and any recent changes taken into account); this well-written and researched (but unfortunately lightly citing) article on the history of the term “happy hour”; this bibliography of early references to the term “happy hour;” and the articles and studies cited within the text.

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