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House committee to vote on alcohol advertising bill

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri General Assembly seems to have taken a strong stance in the current legislative session when it comes to laws related to liquor.

In fact, more than 20 bills have been filed in 2017 in relation to alcohol. One of the most contentious bills is HB 433, sponsored by Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters. Its Senate counterpart is SB 224, filed by Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan.

Both bills seek to permit sales and discounts by alcohol retailers and direct advertisement of discounted prices, but it brings up the question: Should alcohol pricing information be restricted by the government from being advertised to potential customers?

HB 433 would allow coupons for discount booze and drink specials to be clipped from newspapers or broadcast on television if it becomes law.

The bill language says that it would allow alcohol retailers to offer  “any coupon, premium, prize, rebate, sales price below cost, loyalty program, or discount” to consumers and to advertise a specific discount or price.

Currently, bars in Missouri can advertise in advance to promote events like happy hour, but they can’t place any ads mentioning specific discounts like dollar shots or penny pitchers.

Rep. Robert Cornejo
Rep. Robert Cornejo

Cornejo says the bill would be a step toward a more free market in the Show-Me State, and has been given the support of the Missouri Broadcasters Association (MBA) and the Missouri Press Association (MPA), both of whom stand to benefit from the potential new advertising opportunities. HB 433 is also backed by Total Wine and More, a destination booze broker out of Maryland with three St. Louis area locations.

Mark Sableman, the attorney for the MBA, argued that the current statutes date back to when Prohibition was repealed, and do not reflect the last 40 years of decisions of free speech.

“Specifically, Missouri has regulations that prohibit news media from carrying ads describing price discounts on alcohol – even if those discounts are in fact being offered. That is, these regulations prohibit the media from carrying truthful ads,” Sableman said.

The bill’s opponents argue that it would not only hurt Missouri’s small businesses by allowing bigger stores to outspend their smaller competitors, but would hurt families as well.

In an op-ed published by the Missouri Times last week, Molly Teichman, the chairman of Missouri Values Project, wrote about how this legislation could potentially make it easier for Missouri’s young people to be exposed to the advertising, merchandise or even shipments of alcohol directly to homes.

Aaron Baker lobbies on behalf of the Missouri Values Project and argues that there is a societal cost to alcohol, and when alcohol is made cheaper and easier to access, it can be detrimental to families.

However, Edward Cooper, the vice president of public affairs for Total Wine, assured the House Committee on General Laws during their hearing last Tuesday, saying that “discounts don’t make people drink.”

The question on this matter has become very timely during the session, as the state’s restrictions on consumer price transparency are receiving more attention from not just the Missouri Legislature, but federal courts as well.

A federal lawsuit is currently challenging the restrictions under the state Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control’s regulations on alcohol advertising. The challenge has been in the federal courts since 2013, with supporters arguing that the restrictions violate the First Amendment rights of businesses.

While explaining his bill, Cornejo said that it seemed a common-sense step and that the opponents were “afraid of competition.” But Cornejo also said that if the current restrictions were thrown out by the federal court, and HB 433 was not passed, then Missouri would become the “Wild, Wild West.”

HB 433 is scheduled for an executive session vote on Tuesday afternoon in the House Committee on General Laws.