Editorial: Stop beer label censorship
In Maine, the battle was over Santa’s Butt Winter Porter; in New York and other states over Bad Frog beer and the frog’s extended middle froggy finger. In New Hampshire, Founders Breakfast Stout was banned because the label depicted a bibbed toddler in a high chair spooning something into his mouth. Among the many prohibitions in state law is a ban on any reference to minors, “pictorial or otherwise,” that might induce someone under 21 to drink. Santa’s Butt was banned on the grounds that seeing Old Nick with a frosty in his hand would lead children to drink. That ban was lifted after the Maine Civil Liberties Union challenged the state’s refusal to issue a permit to distribute the beer.
Flying Dog Brewery’s Raging Bitch beer, and label artist Ralph Steadman’s crazed drawing of a deranged dog, led to more than raised eyebrows. According to a spokesperson for that brewer, New Hampshire was one of the states that, at least initially, banned the beer because of the label. States can set standards more stringent than those used by the federal government, and some do.
New Hampshire’s Liquor Commission, to its credit, recognizes that adults are the intended market for alcoholic beverages and there are more effective ways to deter underage drinking than censoring the artwork on labels. Even though an executive councilor complained, the commission declined to delist a popular wine called If You See Kay, and it approved the sale of Arrogant Bastard Ale and other brands that cater to the 20-something male market.
We’re aware that advertising that can be taken to excess will be, but in this second decade of the 21st century, beyond certain basic consumer information, should government be in the business of approving or rejecting the names of alcoholic beverages and the designs of their labels? We think not, particularly since the standards are often subjective and decisions based on the sensibilities of, in most cases, one or a handful of people. Labels or artwork determined to be not just obscene but too risque for the censor’s taste can be rejected. Among them have been labels decorated with reproductions of famous paintings of nude or semi-clothed women.
Brewers and vintners face scores of hurdles and months or years of delay when seeking permits, licenses and approvals.
Needless regulation bogs down the process, drives up prices and discourages innovation. Now New Hampshire lawmakers will consider a half-dozen or more bills that could aid what is a vibrant new industry that has emerged in the state. One of them should be a bill that revises 179:31, the law regulating alcoholic beverage advertising to minimize or eliminate the Liquor Commission’s role as a state censor.
Beer labels, for example, need both federal and state approval. Something as simple as the label for a new seasonal beer can take a month or more for approval and far longer if the original design is deemed unacceptable.
New Hampshire now has some two dozen brew pubs and microbreweries and about an equal number of wineries. There are even a few entrepreneurs who distill their own spirits and a few who bottle and sell hard cider. This is good news for the economy, especially in a tourist state.
That makes it a good time for the Legislature to review liquor laws, some of which date to the Prohibition era, and repeal unnecessary nanny state laws that give the Liquor Commission the power to censor beer labels.