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Dispatch: Bars rarely punished for happy hour violations

Bars rarely punished for breaking happy-hour, minimum-pricing laws

Monday, February 7, 2011 02:52 AM

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

The Tipsy Bar in the University District might be on shaky ground with its advertising.

On “Tipsy Tuesdays,” a sign in the window of the watering hole on N. High Street near Lane Avenue proclaims, the bar offers 50-cent pitchers of Natural Light beer from 9 p.m. until closing.

State law prohibits happy-hour pricing after 9 p.m. It also requires minimum pricing, more than 50 cents for a pitcher of beer.

The laws are intended to discourage excessive consumption of alcohol and bargain prices past a reasonable hour. But the state agency with the authority to cite violators rarely does, even though examples of violations are easy to find.

Since 2007, the Ohio Investigative Unit, a branch of the state Department of Public Safety, has written 12 citations in Franklin County for promoting happy-hour pricing after 9 p.m.

One law also prohibits more than two neon window signs. Investigators have cited only two bars statewide since 2007 for that offense.

“If we don’t get a complaint on it, then we may never know,” said Julie Hinds, spokeswoman for the agency. “A lot of the people who complain are the competitors.”

The investigative unit, which has 100 undercover police officers, is more concerned about underage drinking, Hinds said. It also investigates gambling, food-stamp abuse and sale of tobacco to minors.

The advertising laws can be traced to Prohibition.

“It goes back to a temperance era,” said Jacob Evans, an attorney for the Ohio Licensed Beverage Association, which has 500 members statewide. “You don’t want people selling beer or alcohol at a reduced price. A product such as alcohol should be regulated. It needs to be sold and consumed in a responsible manner.

“Not only are you cheating, but you are cheating your competitors,” Evans said. Penalties vary from warnings to fines to license revocation, determined by the Ohio Liquor Control Commission. First-time offenders typically are fined $200 or have their liquor licenses suspended for two years.

“People usually pay the fines,” said Jada Brady, executive director of the three-member Ohio Liquor Control Commission.

Many bars are warned about lesser offenses when undercover officers are checking on underage drinking or gambling, said Robert Booker, executive director of the investigative unit.

“Our goal is compliance,” he said. “It’s not about how many citations we can write.”

Ed Hastie, an attorney for bars and taverns throughout the state, also writes articles about his practice on avvo.com, a website for professionals to discuss their work.

“We are aware a vast majority of Ohio permit-holders disregard this law,” he said of happy-hour rules. “I maintain that a lot of places are not out to break the law and catch an edge. I think a lot of places just don’t know that it’s against the rules.”

The state offers free classes on the laws. But after a recent invitation to bars in the University District, “there were no takers,” Booker said. Other classes have had better attendance.

Ignorance is not an excuse at Coaches Bar and Grill on Bethel Road, where three neon signs blaze in the windows.

“We knew the rules,” owner Benny Leonard said. “Our distributor put up three signs and said, ‘If you get in trouble, take one down.'”

“Aren’t there bigger fish to fry?” Leonard wondered. “I wouldn’t see any neon sign draggin’ me into anywhere.”

Nike Sports Lounge on Hilliard-Rome Road advertises $3 “vodka bombs” until midnight. The normal price is $4.

“If I knew they weren’t right, I wouldn’t have put them in,” manager Jared Gordon said of the promotion. “I didn’t have a clue.”

But, he said, he had no plans to change his practices unless authorities tell him to.