Last week, in Connecticut Fine Wine and Spirits LLC v. Seagull, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a lower court’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit from Total Wine & More challenging parts of Connecticut’s Liquor Control Act and related regulations. Though the decision represents a victory for state alcohol regulatory regimes, the Second Circuit’s ruling was decided on the basis of established antitrust law and did not raise or rely on state regulatory authority under the 21st Amendment. Nonetheless, state alcoholic beverages regulators will embrace the court’s ruling.

In Connecticut Fine Wine, Total Wine challenged three sets of provisions in Connecticut’s alcohol laws. First, Total Wine challenged “post-and-hold” provisions. Under the post-and-hold provisions, state-licensed wholesalers are required to post a “bottle price” and “case price” each month with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. Those prices are then made available to industry participants. During the four days after prices are posted, wholesalers may “amend” their posted prices to match—but not drop below—lower prices offered by competitors. Wholesalers are then obligated to “hold” their prices for a month.

Second, Total Wine challenged the state’s minimum-retail-price provisions. The minimum-retail-price provisions require retailers to sell alcohol beverages to customers at or above a statutorily defined “cost,” which is determined by adding the posted bottle price and a markup for shipping and delivery. Combined with the post-and-hold provisions, the minimum-retail-price provisions bind retailer prices to wholesaler prices.

Third, Total Wine challenged the state’s price discrimination and volume discount provisions. The price discrimination/volume discount provisions preclude wholesalers from offering a given product to different retailers at different prices and from offering discounts to retailers who are high-volume purchasers. Continue Reading Second Circuit Rejects Total Wine Challenge of Connecticut Pricing Laws

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.

The Agricultural Marketing Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently published a proposed rule containing regulations to implement the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard mandated by Congress in 2016. See 83 Fed. Reg. 19860 (May 4, 2018). The proposed regulations would govern the labeling of raw agricultural products and packaged foods whose labeling is governed the federal Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act, including wines below 7 percent alcohol by volume and non-malt beer (e.g., “hard seltzers”). The proposed regulations would not directly apply to alcohol beverages whose labeling is governed by the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, including all distilled spirits, wines containing 7 percent alcohol by volume or greater, and beer containing malted barley and hops. Nevertheless, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau may look to the bioengineered food disclosure regulations as persuasive guidance in developing its own policies towards the disclosure of bioengineered ingredients (often called “genetically modified organisms” or “GMOs”). Continue Reading USDA Publishes Proposed GMO Labeling Regulations

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

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 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