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Treasury Responds to Biden Administration Executive Order with Report, Recommendations to Increase Alcohol Industry Competition

On February 9, 2022, the US Treasury Department (Treasury) released a report with recommendations for how the Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) can help drive competition in the beer, wine and spirits markets by stepping up conduct enforcement, adopting creative and nuanced theories of harm in merger reviews and implementing new regulations to decrease the burden on smaller industry participants.

TREASURY REPORT SUMMARY

  • Treasury released a report entitled “Competition in the Markets for Beer, Wine, and Spirits” in response to President Biden’s July 2021 Executive Order 14036 that assesses the current market structure and conditions of competition, including an assessment of threats to competition and barriers to entry.
  • Treasury’s report is based, in part, on hundreds of comments received from industry participants and paints a detailed picture of the current landscape for alcohol beverage distribution and sale across the United States.
  • The report focuses on how changes could benefit smaller participants in the beer, wine and spirits industry. Given that the stated goal of Executive Order 14036 was, in part, “to reduce the trend of corporate consolidation, increase competition, and deliver concrete benefits to America’s consumers, workers, and small businesses,” it is not surprising that the report is focused on analyzing how a shift in enforcement priorities may be able to help eliminate impediments that make it difficult for smaller producers, distributors and retailers to compete with the larger players in the industry. Treasury specifically recommends that TTB cease bringing cases against “smaller industry members whose conduct does not have obvious effects on competition” (i.e., the investigation several years ago against small wineries for ‘consignment sales’).
  • Treasury makes recommendation on enforcement priorities for FTC, DOJ and TTB. To address the market concentration concerns that the report describes, Treasury makes recommendations regarding how the TTB, FTC and DOJ should focus investigations and enforcement of mergers and conduct in each of the three tiers of the beer, wine and spirits markets: producers, distributors and retailers.
  • Many of the recommendations are likely to be pursued given that the Attorney General and FTC Chair were consulted. The report and its recommendations should be considered carefully as a clear indication of the kinds of issues that FTC and DOJ are likely to focus their investigations on in beer, wine and spirits because the report was developed “in consultation with the Attorney General [DOJ] and the Chair of the FTC.”

TREASURY’S KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

  • While there are myriad competition-focused suggestions in the report, we think the areas that are most likely to receive increased focus from FTC, DOJ and TTB are the following:
    • Anticompetitive Conduct: Treasury noted that FTC, DOJ and TTB have generally not brought any conduct cases on many theories of harm for which myriad complaints were received. Treasury suggests that TTB should act on these [...]

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Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau Announces Joint Operation Targeting Alleged “Pay-to-Play” Activities in Florida

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.




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