The Ban on Consignment Sales

Most brewers are at least somewhat familiar with federal and state laws regulating the interrelationships between members of the different industry tiers. The most well-known are the “tied house” laws, which prohibit or severely restrict brewers or beer wholesalers from owning retail establishments (and vice versa), and substantially limit the ability of brewers or beer wholesalers to provide money, free goods, or other “things of value” to retailers.

Until recently, the laws prohibiting consignment sales in the alcohol beverage industry received little attention. But in the past 18 months, the settlement of two federal investigations involving the beer industry’s biggest players has focused new attention on the subject. This article will explain consignment sale laws in an effort to prevent brewers from inadvertently violating them.

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Originally published in The New Brewer, May/June 2017.

Texas Supreme Court Weighs In on Tied House

Late last month, the Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling in Cadena Comercial USA Corp. d/b/a OXXO v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, finding in favor of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) and weighing in for the first time on the application of Texas’ tied house law. In a 6-2 decision, the court upheld the TABC’s denial of a retail permit to a foreign corporation whose parent company also holds a 20 percent ownership interest in a foreign brewer.

Fomento Económico Mexicano, S.A.B. de C.V. (FEMSA) holds both a 20 percent interest in the stock of two Heineken entities, as well as–through intermediate holding companies–100 percent of the ownership of Cadena Comercial USA Corp. (Cadena), a company that operates convenience stores. In 2011, Cadena sought licensing as a beer and wine retailer in Texas.  During the license application process, the TABC discovered FEMSA’s ownership of Cadena and interest in Heineken and rejected Cadena’s permit application on tied house grounds. Texas’ alcohol beverage laws define “tied house” as prohibiting any overlapping cross-tier ownership interest.

Upon the denial of its permit application, Cadena requested and received an administrative hearing before a county judge. At the hearing, the TABC’s director of licensing testified that that the TABC would consider even one overlapping share of stock across tiers to violate Texas’ tied house laws. (This principle is referred to as the “One Share Rule.”) The judge denied Cadena’s retail permit application, finding that because of Cadena’s interests in a brewer/manufacturer, issuance of the permit would violate the tied house laws. On appeal, both the district court and the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the permit.

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ESOPs and Artisan Distilling

With articles about the “magic” of turning employees into company owners popping up in the New York Times and The Atlantic last fall, Employee Stock Ownership Plans are becoming part of the mainstream vernacular. Referred to by those in the know as “ESOPs” (pronounced “ee-SAHP”), these specialty retirement plans are a popular—and tax effective—way for companies to manage succession planning. When structured properly, and ESOP can provide huge financial benefits to companies and their employees alike. According to the National Center for Employee Ownership, there are almost 7,000 ESOPs currently in place. About 10 million people—more people than currently love in the state of Washington—actively participate in an ESOP today.

There have been several craft brewers who have taken advantage of the ESOP structure in the past year and we expect this trend to pique the interest of craft distilleries. This article explores at a very high level some of the issues involved with starting and maintaining a craft distillery ESOP.

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Originally published in Artisan Spirit, Spring 2017.

Permits Moving to the Permits Online System this Fall Could Cause Substantial Delays

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) recently notified holders of permits that were originally filed in paper of plans to move all permits to the Permits Online (PONL) system this fall. This could lead to substantial delays due to the volume of permits included.  Industry members who wish to submit requests ahead of that time can send their information (EIN, Permit and Registry Numbers) to Permits.Online@ttb.gov and enter Permits Online Data Load in the subject line of the email. Filing amendments electronically has historically been significantly faster using TTB’s PONL system.

Federal Trade Commission Reminder about Advertising Disclosures

In mid-April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent out 90 letters to advertisers, celebrity endorsers and influencers who use their fame and the power of digital advertising to help promote products.  The facts in each letter vary, but the FTC’s message was a strong reminder that clear and conspicuous disclosure is required if a “material connection” exists between and endorser and the marketer of a product.

Typically, the marketer is a manufacturer, importer or an advertising agency that establishes a relationship with an endorser.  In 2009, the FTC created endorsement guides to ensure that consumers are on notice that an endorser or influencer is being compensated by a marketer.  In 2015, the FTC published an Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements.  Those sources provide straightforward guidance to inform consumers that an endorser is acting on behalf of a marketer and to differentiate advertising from truly independent news or reviews of products.

Throughout history, producers of consumer goods marketed their wares with endorsements from famous people and “satisfied consumers.”  Social media provides an enormous boost to the most ancient form of marketing, “word of mouth.”  An image of your product with a celebrity or the perfect “ordinary consumer” in a creative setting can quickly go viral to millions of consumers or receive hundreds of thousands of likes on Facebook.

All ads should be truthful, targeted appropriately, and compliant with industry codes.  If appropriate, ads should also be clearly identified as paid endorsements or advertising material to reduce the risk of consumer deception.  These principles are especially important in the digital domain where viewers tend to move rapidly from one destination to another.

A successful ad that includes use of celebrities or influencers should meet the FTC’s standards to avoid future enforcement initiatives.  The reputation of the advertiser and endorser as well as the integrity of the brands should not be placed at risk by the failure to include clear and conspicuous notices or disclaimers.  Congress granted the FTC broad jurisdiction to police deceptive ads.  The FTC’s guidance has now been around long enough to be on the checklist of every advertiser—particularly those under pressure to publish the next iconic image on Facebook or Instagram!

Legal, Political and Practical Challenges in Regulating Recreational Marijuana

On March 30, eight bills were introduced by senior members of Congress from both parties to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana. The bills were referred to at least five House Committees, as they address federal criminal law, taxation, banking, transportation, immigration, veterans’ affairs, access to federal benefits and other issues. The legislative activity follows establishment of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus in February. Leaders of the new caucus represent four of the eight states where voters have approved recreational use of marijuana by adults.

In the initial press conference held by Cannabis Caucus members and in statements explaining the new legislation, House and Senate members made frequent reference to laws regulating alcohol beverages. Bills introduced earlier in the current session of Congress also call for state-by-state regulation using language similar to the Section 2 of the Twenty-first Amendment, which authorized each state to regulate the delivery and use of “intoxicating liquors” within its borders.

The failure of national Prohibition of alcohol beverages is often cited as a rationale to legalize recreational marijuana use. Before proceeding toward wider legalization, policymakers should gain a deeper understanding of the history of Prohibition and the regulatory scheme that emerged after repeal. Government regulation is necessary in a complex and pluralistic society of 320 million, but effective marijuana regulation is a tall order.

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Environmental Claims in Advertising

Arthur DeCelle wrote this bylined article describing how brewers can use product labels, point of sale (POS) advertising, social networks, and other media to tell customers about their environmental responsibility efforts. Such information “must be truthful and substantiated by evidence [and] must not be deceptive to reasonable consumers,” Mr. DeCelle wrote, urging brewers to “carefully consider the language you use and any potential for consumer deception [regarding] false or deceptive environmental claims.”

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Originally published in New Brewer, March/April 2017.

USDA Warns Canada-EU Trade Agreement Could Impact US Alcohol Beverage Exports

US exporters of alcohol beverages to Canada will soon face stiffer competition from their European rivals. The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is expected to come into force by June 1, 2017, and Canadian duties on EU wines, beer and other alcoholic beverages will go to zero immediately. While tariffs on EU wine imports are already fairly low, products such as ciders will have their current duty rate reduced from 28 cents per liter to zero immediately. In fact, the European Commission is already extolling the expanded export opportunities for EU wine and spirit producers as a major selling point for CETA.

The US is expected to enter into formal North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiations with Canada and Mexico this summer. US alcohol beverage producers and trade associations should act now to ensure that the US negotiators protect US market access in Canada and otherwise promote their interests.

The USDA report and list of EU products that will receive duty-free treatment under CETA is available here.

Implications of EU Ingredient Labeling Proposal for US Suppliers

On March 13, the European Commission approved a report that calls on members of the alcohol beverage industry to develop a comprehensive self-regulatory system of ingredient and nutritional labeling for beer, wine, and distilled spirits. The Commission is composed of representatives of each member nation of the European Union (EU) with a range of administrative responsibilities and authority to develop and propose legislation for consideration by the European Parliament.

The European Commission characterizes access to ingredient and nutrition information as a right of EU consumers, and called on industry members to develop a self-regulatory proposal over the next year. Current EU policy on alcohol beverage labeling is analogous to US policy. The EU regulation on food labeling exempts alcohol beverages containing more than 1.2 percent alcohol-by-volume.

The European Commission proposal warrants careful attention by US alcohol beverage suppliers across all beverage categories. The initial industry response by European suppliers will likely start a lengthy process leading to new ingredient disclosures.

US regulations are largely based on the presumption that consumers have a working knowledge of ingredients in alcohol beverages. Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) and its predecessor agency considered and rejected mandatory ingredient labeling proposals several times since 1970s. TTB’s most recent assessment of ingredient and nutritional labeling of alcohol beverages was an advance notice of proposed rulemaking published in 2005 soliciting public input on the existing TTB policy. No further rulemaking activity followed the TTB inquiry.

Existing TTB regulations focus on disclosures of certain ingredients that pose unique health risks or allergic reactions. Industry members are permitted to disclose ingredients on a voluntary basis.  A few alcohol beverages are subject to US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, which require comprehensive ingredient and nutritional labeling.

Many US products are exported for consumption in the EU. If a new system is adopted in the EU, producers in the US must provide ingredient and nutritional information to their customers overseas with no corresponding requirements in their home markets. EU suppliers are major players in the US market and may decide to voluntarily provide the same information to their American customers that they will ultimately have to provide in their home markets.

These dynamics will likely reinvigorate calls by consumer advocacy organizations and government agencies (e.g., Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and National Institutes of Health) in support of ingredient labeling of alcohol beverages in the US. In the current era of dwindling government resources, the European Commission’s call for an industry self-regulatory initiative provides an opening for a similar initiative in the US. Industry members and associations should monitor developments in the EU and consider appropriate responses directly to the EU initiative and to analogous proposals in the US.

An English version of the European Commission proposals is available here.

Understanding the Three-Tier System: Its Impacts on U.S. Craft Beer and You

Understanding the U.S. market for alcohol beverages, including beer, requires an understanding of the three-tier system. Whether viewed with deep reverence or great scorn, it is a system of distribution that delivers the vast majority of beer to the mouths of thirsty American drinkers. Let’s take a few moments to understand that system a little better.

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Originally published in CraftBeer.com.

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