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

On Friday, October 13, 2017, a Texas Court of Appeals handed down the long-awaited decision in Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission v. Mark Anthony Brewing, Inc., No. 03-16-00039-CV.

The case involves Texas’ ban on private-label malt beverage/beer labels, which appear in regulations that are one aspect of the state’s comprehensive tied-house laws. Mark Anthony Brewing sought a declaratory ruling on those Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) regulations after the TABC refused to approve the labels for Mark Anthony’s T.G.I. Friday’s branded flavored malt beverages. T.G.I. Friday’s is also, of course, a well-known retail chain. Mark Anthony produces the T.G.I. Friday’s line under a trademark license from the retailer, as governed by a trademark licensing agreement between the parties.

A Texas trial court ruled in favor of Mark Anthony, holding that the TABC regulations in question violate the First Amendment. The trial court further ruled that Mark Anthony’s sales of the product and the licensing agreement between Mark Anthony and T.G.I. Friday’s either did not violate Texas’ tied-house prohibitions or, in the alternative, those prohibitions were unconstitutional as applied to Mark Anthony’s sales and the parties’ agreement. Continue Reading Texas Court of Appeals Reverses T.G.I. Friday’s Label Decision

Today’s off-premises retail landscape is dominated by large chains that rely on practices generally known as category management to maximize the profitability of their stores. Some of the activities falling under the category management umbrella require close interaction between the retailer and the producers, importers, or distributors supplying them product. As a result of this interaction, the federal Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) last year issued a ruling indicating that industry members’ participation in category management activities could result in a violation of the tied-house provision of the Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) Act and the TTB’s corresponding tied-house regulations.

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Originally published in The New Brewer, September/October 2017.

On July 20, 2017, the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced a joint operation it conducted with the Florida Department of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco (DABT) to investigate potential trade practice violations in the Miami, Florida area. According to a very brief press release issued by TTB, the investigation focused on alleged “pay-to-play” schemes. “Pay-to-play” is an industry term generally used to mean the provision of payments or other “things of value” by an upper-tier industry member (i.e., supplier or wholesaler) to a retailer to secure placement for the industry member’s products in the retailer’s premises.

Although neither TTB nor the DABT has released any specific details of the investigation or the parties involved, the investigation suggests that TTB is acting on prior announcements that it would seek to aggressively enforce its trade practice regulations. TTB’s 2017 budget included a $5 million earmark to enhance trade practice enforcement. As part of this effort, TTB transitioned 11 of its existing investigators to new roles focusing exclusively on trade practice enforcement.

The joint investigation also comes on the heels of other recent enforcement of trade practice laws and regulations—specifically involving allegations of pay-to-play activities—by state alcohol regulators. In just the last few months, the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission initiated an enforcement action against an Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI)-owned distributor in connection with an alleged pay-to-play scheme. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control also recently settled an enforcement action against ABI wholesalers for alleged trade practice violations. Also, in June, a New Jersey beer wholesaler agreed to pay a nearly $2 million fine to settle trade practice allegations brought by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales of alcohol beverages have been a hot topic in the alcohol industry for the last two decades. The wine direct-shipping landscape has changed greatly over the past 15 or so years, most dramatically by the US Supreme Court’s decision in Granholm v. Heald. Today nearly evert state—plus the District of Columbia—allows wineries to ship wine across state lines directly to in-state consumers. The same cannot be said for spirits.

There are, however, a few avenues distillers may consider to get their products delivered to consumers around the country. Further, an initiative is underway to pursue litigation to secure DTC rights for spirits. Although it is far too early to speculate about the outcome of any such litigation, the current effort suggests the potential for interstate distiller-to-consumer sales in the coming years. Of course, lingering ambivalence toward spirits (as opposed to wine) by the public, lawmakers, and alcohol regulators makes the prospect for any legal change uncertain.

Read the full article.

Originally published in Artisan Spirit, July 2017.

Yesterday, the en banc (full) Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the attached opinion in the case of Retail Digital Network v. Prieto, No. 13-56069.

As you may recall, the Retail Digital Network case concerns the legality of sections of California’s tied-house laws, California Business and Professions Code Section 25503(f)-(h), which prohibit manufacturers and wholesalers (and their agents) from giving anything of value to retailers in exchange for advertising their products.  Retail Digital Network (RDN), which installs advertising displays in retail stores and contracts with parties to advertise their products on the displays, sought a declaratory judgment that Section 25503(f)-(h) violated the First Amendment after RDN’s attempts to contract with alcohol manufacturers failed due to the manufacturers’ concerns that such advertising would violate these tied-house provisions.

The District Court found Section 25503(f)-(h) constitutional under a Ninth Circuit case from 1986, Actmedia, Inc. v. Stroh, in which the court upheld Section 25503(h).  Then in January 2016, a panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Actmedia is “clearly irreconcilable” with the Supreme Court’s 2011 opinion in Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc.  The panel accordingly would have remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings under Sorrell’s allegedly more restrictive First Amendment standard.  But the state requested an en banc (full court) rehearing, which the court granted.

Continue Reading En Banc Opinion Could Set Precedent for Tied-House Laws

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.

Read the full article.

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

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.

Continue Reading Texas Supreme Court Weighs In on Tied House

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.

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!