Restore Happy Hours? Are they Crazy?

There seems to be a move afoot to place a ballot question for the November, 2022, state election that would allow for the return of so-called Happy Hours (a/k/a, drink as much as you can, as fast as you can) to Massachusetts.

Happy Hours have been illegal in this state since 1984, after a young woman was killed in a Happy Hour-related drunk-driving accident. George R. McCarthy, the former mayor of Everett who back then was the chairman of the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, which sponsored the ban, said, ‘’I’ve heard all the horror stories I’m going to listen to,’’ referring to the many fatal accidents at the time in which drivers and pedestrians tragically were killed as a result of excessive drinking at Happy Hours.

Those in support of restoring Happy Hours make two arguments. First, they say it will increase business for bars and restaurants, which need all the support they can get amidst a pandemic, and second, they point to the use of Uber and Lyft that will reduce drunk-driving incidents.

Neither argument is backed-up by any data and both lack common-sense.

We would like to make a number of points in response:

1) The majority of bar owners/restaurateurs reportedly are not in favor of restoring Happy Hours, which probably is why the Mass. Restaurant Assoc. has yet to take a position on the matter. Sales of alcoholic beverages are the main source of profit for most establishments — so why would they want to discount them? Admittedly, there probably would be a few bars that would do so in an effort to increase business, but that only would create a race to the bottom, so to speak — all establishments would feel the need to compete with the place down the street that is offering “all-you-can-drink for $5.00” or $1.00 pitchers of beer (which were typical of Happy Hours back in the 1980s). We are not aware of any study that shows how much, if at all, Happy Hours might add to an establishment’s bottom line.

Moreover, we can’t imagine that for any reputable establishment, the increase in business would outweigh the headaches of having to deal with the increase of inebriates on their premises, with the need to greatly-enhance their self-policing, and with absorbing higher insurance liability premiums.

But even if there might be some small financial benefit for some establishments, is it worth the cost to society for the inevitable increase in drunk driving, assaults, and other accidents that unquestionably will flow from a policy that encourages patrons to drink heavily and irresponsibly?

2) While it may be true that many people plan ahead to use Uber and Lyft — typically for special occasions — that does not mean that folks who decide to hit the Happy Hour at a nearby bar after work will do so on a regular basis. 

The use of Uber and Lyft has not led to a decrease in drunk-driving deaths. In 1984, there were 411 drunk-driving fatalities in Mass., constituting about 62% of the total of all fatal auto crashes.

But by 2009 — before Uber and Lyft were around — drunk-driving fatalities in Mass. had plummeted precipitously to 130 and accounted for just 39% of all traffic-related deaths. The numbers have remained about the same both in Mass. (and nationally) for the past 12 years — even with Uber and Lyft available. Our strict drunk-driving laws, including the ban on Happy Hours — not the ride-sharing services — are responsible for the sharp decline in drunk-driving deaths in Mass. over the past 37 years.

3) Proponents of lifting the ban point out that other states — primarily in the South and West — allow for Happy Hours. But what they don’t say is that the states with the 10 highest-rates of drunk driving fatalities per capita are — take a wild guess! — Montana, Wyoming, So. Carolina, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota, Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Massachusetts ranks 4th LEAST in drunk-driving deaths per capita and by a wide margin. So why would we want to emulate those states — don’t we want to continue to be safer (and smarter)?

4) Finally, beyond the issue of drunk-driving, we know so much more about the damage that alcohol wreaks both individually (to every organ in our bodies) and collectively (to our families and society), than we did in 1984. Alcohol has been labeled a Class 1 carcinogen and plays a huge role in domestic abuse, non-auto accidents, date rape, and other assaults (i.e., the proverbial bar-room brawls). Happy Hours encourage binge-drinking, which will exacerbate every one of these issues. Human nature and the devastating effects of alcohol abuse are the same today as they were in 1984.

To those young people for whom reinstating Happy Hours is a driving (no pun intended) force in their lives, we simply would say this: Please wait until you grow up. You’ll realize there is a lot more to life than getting hammered at a Happy Hour every week and endangering the safety of yourself and others.

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