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Arthur (Art) J. DeCelle focuses his practice on advising alcohol beverage companies in commercial transactions, advertising and marketing, regulatory and excise tax compliance, and effective participation in legal and public policy debates at all levels of government. Read Art DeCelle's full bio.

The latest development in a lengthy legal challenge to advertising restrictions in Missouri’s tied house laws and regulations raises practical economic issues for the alcohol beverage industry and significant legal and policy issues for legislators and regulators at all levels of government. On June 28, Judge Douglas Harpool of the US District Court for the Western District of Missouri filed a decision in Missouri Broadcasters Association vs. Dorothy Taylor. The Missouri Broadcasters Association (MBA) is a trade association representing media outlets. Two licensed Missouri retailers were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Ms. Dorothy Taylor is the Supervisor of the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (DATC).

The basic issue in the case is whether several Missouri alcohol beverage advertising restrictions violate the plaintiffs’ commercial speech rights protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

The June District Court decision follows a bench trial held in February 2018. The trial occurred as the result of prior legal proceedings culminating in a 2017 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which found that the MBA’s amended complaint “plausibly demonstrates that the challenged provisions [of Missouri’s tied house law] do not directly advance the government’s asserted substantial interest, are more extensive than necessary and unconstitutionally compel speech and association.”

Perhaps the most important Missouri law challenged in this litigation is an exception in the tied house laws that authorizes a manufacturer to pay for advertising that lists “two or more affiliated retail businesses selling its products” subject to four conditions:

(a) The advertisement shall not contain the retail price of the product;

(b) The listing of the retail businesses shall be the only reference to such retail businesses in the advertisement;

(c) The listing of the retail businesses shall be relatively inconspicuous in relation to the advertisement as a whole; and

(d) The advertisement shall not refer only to one retail business or only to a retail business controlled directly or indirectly by the same retail business.

This language may be familiar to many practitioners and regulators as a nearly identical provision appears in the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) tied house regulations. Laws and regulations of several states include similar express exceptions and TTB regulations are incorporated by reference in the trade practices regulations of other states. Innumerable TTB and state tied house laws and regulations restrict advertising in similar ways and may be invalidated if the analysis in Missouri Broadcasters is applied by other courts and ultimately upheld by federal appellate courts.

Other Missouri laws and regulations that were successfully challenged by MBA in the trial court prohibit (a) media advertising of price discounts, (b) beer and wine coupons, (c) outdoor advertising of discounts by retailers and (d) below cost advertising.

Unlike many cases based solely on theoretical legal arguments and the text of laws and regulations, the trial in the Missouri case resulted in a wide-ranging inquiry that included expert witnesses on advertising and the level of effort invested by the Missouri DATC in enforcing the challenged laws and regulations. The court’s decision suggests that the state struggled to provide any credible evidence that the challenged laws “directly reduce[] overconsumption of alcohol and underage drinking.”

The court found that the plaintiffs’ expert testimony provided substantial evidence “that there is in fact no demonstrative relationship between media advertising of alcohol and overall consumption rates of underage drinking…The State failed to present any evidence contradicting the testimony, empirical studies, and statistical analysis relied on by the Plaintiffs’ expert.”

The court agreed with the plaintiffs and cited language from the 8th Circuit decision that “the multiple inconsistencies within the regulations poke obvious holes in any potential advancement” of the state’s interest, “to the point the regulations do not advance the interest at all.” This finding is a threat to dozens of federal and state alcohol beverage laws that are riddled with exceptions that allow alcohol beverage advertising in one context and expressly prohibit the same advertising in another context (e.g., prohibiting exterior signs and permitting indoor signs).

Because the challenged Missouri laws restrict commercial speech rights protected by the First Amendment, the court also awarded legal fees to MBA and the retailer plaintiffs.

Advertising can be removed from the “marble cake” of state and federal tied house restrictions without dire consequences for regulators. If the reasoning in Missouri Broadcasters survives, the most significant effects will occur in intra-industry negotiations where parties will determine how advertising costs and activities are apportioned across the three-tier system.

Before proclaiming the death of the three-tier system, hundreds of state licensing and tied house laws have nothing to do with advertising. Prohibitions on ownership interests in more than one tier of the alcohol beverage industry are not affected by the recent decision along with substantial restrictions on industry trade practices other than advertising.

Finally, the reasoning in Missouri Broadcasters may have to survive another appeal and must be adopted by other courts to broadly affect house restrictions on advertising throughout the United States. Perhaps a state (or more likely a state with support from interested industry members) will develop credible evidence to support similar laws in other jurisdictions. For example, California aggressively defended analogous laws and regulations, which were ultimately upheld last year by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Two sections of Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act (CBMTRA) that were dropped from the 2017 federal tax reform law were subsequently added to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, signed into law by President Trump on February 9, 2018.

The new law mandates a temporary (two year) change in tax recordkeeping requirements for domestic breweries to eliminate duplicate reports and accounting obligations for breweries that have pub and sampling areas. The intent of the new law is to allow brewers to keep one set of books covering (a) beer removed from brewery for sale for distribution to retailers and (b) beer sold or provided for sampling to consumers at a brewery. Existing regulations and policies led to unnecessary complexity in accounting for brewers and for auditors from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). While the recordkeeping changes are required for calendar years 2018 and 2019, TTB may be able to make changes in regulations and policies that will provide permanent relief from unnecessary administrative burdens. Continue Reading 2018 Federal Budget Legislation Provides Breweries with Administrative Relief and Acknowledges 21st Amendment

Early this morning, both houses of Congress approved the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018,” complex legislation that includes important modifications to an arcane law known as the “rum cover over,” which is an important revenue source for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (USVI).

The temporary excise tax relief provided to distillers in the 2017 federal tax reform law will not diminish the amount of federal excise tax revenue covered over to the treasuries of Puerto Rico and the USVI. The 2017 tax reform law included a two year reduction in the federal distilled spirits excise tax rate from $13.50 per proof gallon to $2.70 per proof gallon on the first 100,000 proof gallons of distilled spirits, and $13.34 per proof gallon on the next 22,130,000 proof gallons produced by each distillery or each controlled group of distilleries. The 2018 Budget Act treats all rum subject to the rum cover over as if it is subject to the full $13.50 per gallon excise tax rate. Continue Reading Additional Rum Cover Over for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands Approved in 2018 Budget Legislation

This post does not constitute tax advice. It summarizes changes in alcohol beverage excise tax laws to assist industry members in planning to implement the changes. Excise tax calculations and liability must be determined for each taxpayer based on numerous variables.

The new tax law formerly referred to as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, provides a temporary reduction in alcohol beverage excise taxes for US brewers, winemakers, distillers and beverage importers. Temporary tax relief is available for beer, wine and spirits removed from a US manufacturing facility or released from Custom’s custody after January 1, 2018, and prior to December 31, 2019. Several provisions of the new law will require the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to quickly promulgate new regulations. Continue Reading Excise Tax Relief for Breweries, Wineries and Distilleries

On November 7, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published the latest in a series of industry draft guidance documents to help implement menu labeling and nutrient disclosure regulations applicable to chain restaurants (Draft Guidance). FDA guidance documents are advisory in nature and represent the views of the FDA at a given point in time. Accordingly, guidance is subject to change, but is useful for developing a compliance plan for retail establishments covered by the menu labeling regulations. Changes are usually incremental and based on agency experience and input from regulated industry members.

The FDA established a 60-day period for comments on the draft menu labeling and nutrient disclosure guidance. The comment period ends on January 6, 2018.

The current compliance date for menu labeling and nutrient disclosure regulations is May 7, 2018.

Implementation of federal menu labeling and nutrient disclosures by chain restaurants is a study in modern American political and administrative processes. For those who already tried to comply with the formal FDA regulations and prior guidance, an explanatory note about delays in the administrative process appears at the end of this post.

Two sections of the Draft Guidance explicitly address alcohol beverages.

  • Guidance is offered for beer lists on menus and the discussion has broader application to wine and spirits products and cocktails that are standard menu items on chain restaurant menus.
  • Sources of nutrient information for beer, wine and spirits are also discussed to provide an alternative to expensive laboratory testing for each brand that a manufacturer offers.

The Draft Guidance also:

  • Includes several plain-language explanations of key terms in FDA regulations with useful distinctions between regular menu items and season or special items;
  • Displays a number of graphics designed to assist retailers with standardized formats to communicate calorie content of various foods to consumers and to distinguish menus from marketing materials;
  • Directs manufacturers and retailers to reliable sources and methods to prepare and display compliant nutrient disclosures; and
  • Provides information on presentation of mandatory standard menu notices alerting consumers to the federal government’s recommended 2,000 calorie diet and availability of nutritional information for standard menu items upon request to a server or manager at a retail establishment.

The FDA guidance and the formal regulations use subjective terms about legibility (e.g., contrasting, clear and conspicuous). Those terms aim to ensure that information is consumer-friendly, but they could lead to nuisance complaints from regulators. FDA regional personnel and local inspectors under contract with the FDA will monitor compliance with menu labeling regulations. Since chains will, by nature, have locations in multiple jurisdictions, consistency in enforcement poses a challenge to industry and government.

To mitigate regulatory risks, a conservative approach is advisable to mandatory disclosures. All aspects of calorie and nutrient disclosure should be reviewed by counsel or a knowledgeable compliance professional. The review should start with the manner used to ascertain calories and nutrients and continue through preparation and publication of new and easy-to-read menus and nutrient disclosures. While the regulations will inevitably lead to a standardized portion of chain menus, the Draft Guidance does not inhibit traditional point-of-sale marketing materials, graphics and other creative elements in a menu or associated marketing materials.

Why has menu labeling taken so long?

  • Menu labeling and nutritional disclosure requirements for chain restaurants are mandated by Congress in the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (better known as Obamacare).
  • A four-year rulemaking process on menu labeling ended with publication of a final rule on December 1, 2014. That rule is unchanged as of November 2017, and is found at 21 CFR 101.11.
  • A protracted debate occurred over the complexity of the rule and practical issues for food retailers who are responsible for compliance.
  • In 2015, Congress enacted an appropriations bill, which included a “policy rider” ordering the FDA to not to spend money on implementation and enforcement of the final rule until one-year after publication of a guidance document. Because appropriations bills deal with funding and not substantive policy, Congress provided no additional guidance to the FDA to clarify issues raised in the rulemaking and public controversies surrounding menu labeling.
  • The FDA published a “final guidance document” on May 5, 2016, with a new compliance date of May 5, 2017. Controversy continued, and the FDA extended the implementation date again to May 7, 2018.
  • The November 2017 draft FDA guidance document discussed above could be revised again following the 60-day comment period.
  • The compliance date remains May 7, 2018 unless extended again by the FDA or delayed by additional Congressional action.

On September 29, 2017, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued Ruling 2017-2, which updates and supersedes older agency guidance on allowable returns of beer and malt beverage products that contain “pull dates” or other indicators of product freshness.

The Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) Act includes a general prohibition on “consignment sales,” 27 USC 205(d). Congress believed that all transactions should be “bona fide” sales. Id. The intent was to prevent a wide range of unscrupulous practices that might occur if manufacturers and wholesalers furnishing alcohol beverages to retailers on consignment or with the right of return.

The FAA Act prohibition on consignment sales does not apply to “transactions involving solely the bona fide return of merchandise for ordinary and usual commercial reasons arising after the merchandise has been sold.” Id. TTB regulations provide an extensive list of reasons that a manufacturer or wholesaler can accept returns. 27 CFR, Part 11, Subpart D. Continue Reading TTB Issues Guidance on Application of Consignment Sales Regulations to Freshness Dating and Returns from Retailers

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!

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.

Continue Reading Legal, Political and Practical Challenges in Regulating Recreational Marijuana

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.”

Read the full article.

Originally published in New Brewer, March/April 2017.

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.