Fewer Beer Ads Means Fewer Young Boozers? The State Says Yes

Who will tell the children?
Gus Hellthaler admits the recent letter from the liquor board baffled him at first. It stated that the board had changed its liquor advertising policy and that his U District bar, the Blue Moon, effectively would be restricted to four neon signs in its storefront windows. At the time, the Moon had 11 neons ranging from Pabst to Sierra Nevada hanging in the front.

The stated reason? After a year of public comment, the liquor board became convinced that outdoor liquor and beer advertising, such as neon Bud signs or Captain Morgan Spiced Rum promotional banners, contributed to the likelihood of underage drinking. So the board voted to restrict such brand-based advertising at bars to a maximum of 1600 square inches or approximately four average-size neon signs

Hellthaler said this left him in a quandary: "Which four signs are not going to corrupt the children? This is a critical decision, " the longtime bar owner says, tongue firmly in cheek. "Maybe I should ask some children which signs are least appealing to them."

Hellthaler called the changes ridiculous. State liquor board spokesman Brian Smith says this opinion doesn't match the vast bulk of public comment received by the board since it began discussing the issue one year ago.

"We haven't updated our standards for liquor advertising since the 1990s," he says. "When we began discussing this issue we had a flood of posts requesting that we restrict outdoor advertising.

"In my time here this is the biggest outpouring of support for a change we've every had."

Smith says supporters of restrictions pointed to studies, such as a recent one by the Rand Corp. which demonstrate a link between alcohol advertising and underage drinking.

The regulation, which went into effect in early April, is specific to outdoor visible advertising and brand names. Any additional neon signs beyond the limit could be displayed inside the bar with no restrictions. And a bar could still have a banner reading

"Cinco de Mayo Drink Specials" but that display couldn't have a beer or booze company logo on it -- if that brand name pushed the bar's overall brand advertising beyond the 1,600 square-inch limit.

But the restrictions do not affect children's exposure to massive outdoor beer advertising at Qwest or Safeco Fields. Two years ago, lawmakers passed legislation protecting the lucrative ads at those venues. Asked about what opponents call a double-standard, Smith says the board is focusing on what it can: smaller retail outlets.

"We're going to start with this. The board has not told me they are going to go for stadium (advertising). I'm not going to speculate about the politics on this."

Bars across the state started receiving notices in May. Smith said the notes are advisory and the the board doesn't want to fine anyone. Yet.

Hellthaler took down most of his sign his signs and put up a red-white-and-blue sign reading, "We are not allowed to advertise that we sell beer."

The Moon owner says he will figure out which four signs to display when he hears back from the kids. "I just don't know yet."

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