After a January 2016 Ninth Circuit decision, there was a big question mark in California over whether the state could justify its laws creating and protecting the three tier system. The decision raised a real issue over whether the First Amendment right to free speech might triumph over three tier laws preventing supplier-paid advertisements in retail stores. In January 2016, no position was taken by the court on whether the law was justified, but the language of the opinion strongly suggested that the court had doubts that it could be. A June 2017 decision lays that question to rest, and affirms California’s right to legislate to prohibit suppliers from paying retailers for advertising, based on its powers under the Twenty-First Amendment, and thus issuing a strong reinforcement of the validity of the three tier system and the laws that maintain it. On June 14, the Ninth Circuit handed down a ten-to-one en banc decision, rejecting a First Amendment challenge to California’s law preventing suppliers from paying for advertising on licensed retail premises (Retail Digital Network v. Prieto, No. 13-56069). The plaintiff/appellant, Retail Digital Network, LLC (“RDN”), operates a business supplying digital screen displays to retailers across California, most of which are licensed to sell alcoholic beverages. The screens show short advertisements for various different consumer products, and the income received by RDN from those advertisers is shared with the host retail store. Frustrated at their difficulty in selling advertising slots to alcoholic beverage suppliers, RDN brought an action against the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), in the U.S. District Court for California, asking the Court to find the law stopping suppliers from paying for ads on their screens unconstitutional. In order to succeed in the case, RDN had to overcome a thirty year old decision by the Ninth Circuit in a very similar case, where the company in question sold ads on shopping carts used in retail stores (Actmedia, Inc. v. Stroh, 830 F. 2d. 957 (9th Cir. 1986)) (“Stroh”). The same statute at issue in the RDN case, which prevents anything of value from being provided by a supplier or wholesaler to a retailer in return for advertising, had been challenged in that case, based on the same argument that it infringed the advertiser’s First Amendment right to free speech (the statute in question is California Business & Professions Code §25503(f)-(h)). Back in 1986, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the state’s right to regulate the commercialization of liquor pursuant to the Twenty-First Amendment, and, in particular, to legislate to achieve goals like the promotion of temperance and protection of the three tier system, provided sufficient justifications to uphold the constitutionality of the law. The court used the recognized, four-part, intermediate scrutiny test for analyzing content-based restrictions on non-misleading commercial speech, known as the “Central Hudson” test (based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission, 447 U.S. 557 (1980)). In order to get around the Stroh precedent, RDN argued in its claim that an intervening 2011 Supreme Court decision had changed the Central Hudson test for a First Amendment commercial speech review, creating a more demanding level of Court scrutiny over legislative restrictions on such speech, referred to as “heightened” scrutiny (Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 564 U.S. 552 (2011)) (“Sorrell”). After receipt of RDN’s claim, the ABC filed for, and was granted, summary judgment on the basis that the Stroh precedent was not irreconcilable with Sorrell. RDN appealed to the Ninth Circuit, where three judges agreed that Sorrell had changed the level of scrutiny to be applied to limits on speech, and remanded the case to the District Court to hear more evidence on the reasons asserted by the state to justify the law. The District Court was directed by the Ninth Circuit to apply heightened rather than intermediate review to those reasons, on the basis of the decision in Sorrell. In addition to reversing the decision, the Ninth Circuit also took time to point out some concerns for the District Court to consider on remand, in its assessment of whether the ABC could legitimately raise any justification for the law, in part because of the large number of special interest exceptions created by the Legislature over the years. When the initial Ninth Circuit decision was handed down in January 2016, it generated a huge industry response, with many concerns raised over its implied challenge to the integrity of the three tier foundational protections. In a highly unusual circumstance, the Ninth Circuit agreed to a rehearing of the case with eleven judges en banc, which hearing took place in January this year. In the decision issued in June, the Ninth Circuit reversed its own January 2016 ruling, with ten judges confirming the original District Court summary judgment ruling, and one judge dissenting. Of the three judges who originally heard the case in the Ninth Circuit, only Chief Judge Thomas was part of the bench for rehearing, and he was the lone dissent. The court reviewed and essentially reaffirmed its decision in Stroh, and the applicability of the Central Hudson intermediate scrutiny test. The Ninth Circuit majority confirmed that the law in question was as narrowly drawn as possible to serve the state’s important goal of protecting the three tier system, by preventing possible illegal payoffs from suppliers to retailers, disguised as advertising payments, and by preventing suppliers and wholesalers from exerting undue influence over retailers. They diverged from Stroh only to state that they did not endorse the state’s other listed goal of promoting temperance by limiting point of purchase advertising, as being a legitimate justification for the law. The argument raised by RDN, and referred to in the initial Ninth Circuit decision, that the special interest exceptions undermine the purpose of the tied house law, was rejected by the court on the basis that they only affect a small minority of licensed retailers, and have a minimal effect on the entire regulatory scheme. The majority’s decision leaves little question remaining as to the validity of the three tier system, and its legislative and regulatory protections in California. If you have any questions about your alcohol business’ advertising practices or its relationships with retailers, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.
With news last week that the NFL will now be allowing distilled spirits suppliers to advertise during televised football games, it is a good time for a reminder about some of the special issues that come up when advertising alcohol. Under federal law, there are several rules that regulate the advertising of alcohol by suppliers. The main one is that advertisements must include mandatory information about the responsible advertiser and about the product. If a supplier is advertising all of its brands, the only information needed is the advertiser’s name and address, as approved on its federal permit. If a single brand is being advertised, its class and type must appear, and a distilled spirits ad must also show the alcohol content of the product, and the percent and type of any neutral spirits it contains. The federal laws, and many state laws, also have general restrictions around legibility, comparative advertising, and around certain prohibited statements, including, for example, health claims or obscene or indecent statements. Advertising laws prevent the use of a supplier advertisement to provide something of value to a retail licensee, e.g., by giving information about retailers other than a basic mention of where to find the supplier’s products, including at least two, unaffiliated retailers. Suppliers and retailers cannot cooperate or share in the costs of advertising. At the state and local level, other concerns include things like the direct mailing or televising of alcohol advertisements, and advertising of pricing or discounting on products. A number of states require alcohol ads to be preapproved by the regulators there before they can be published. Many states will not allow any listing or mention of retailers in advertisements unless all known retailers of the product are mentioned. It is important to be aware of what exactly constitutes an advertisement. Don’t forget that social media posts by a brand are also subject to advertising rules. Third party posts by influencers and others are also ads, and are subject to Federal Trade Commission guidelines on making sure that readers know that the placement of the brand’s name was paid for. The same goes for sweepstakes and other competitions run by brands, where it must be clear in the post that a consumer has been incentivized to post content on their own social media pages in return for a chance to win a prize. The FTC recently sent letters to dozens of brands and influencers, warning that “material connections” between influencers and brands must be disclosed in social media posts promoting the brands. This suggests that the FTC is focused on the issue and could take enforcement action against companies that fail to comply. Each of the major supplier industry trade groups (Beer Institute, Wine Institute, and the Distilled Spirits Council) maintain voluntary compliance guidelines for advertising in the alcohol industry. These guides contain recommendations related to making sure that target audiences are over 21, that actors appear to be well over 21, and which recommend limiting certain content, for example, ads that encourage overconsumption or suggest that drinking leads to sporting or other success. The guides are extremely useful reading for all industry members, even if they are not members of the association in question. If you are looking for specific guidance on alcohol advertising, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.
The partners at Strike & Techel are pleased to announce the elevation of Tom Kerr from Senior Associate to Partner in the firm! Tom spent his first few years after law school practicing commercial litigation, but once he joined Strike & Techel in 2011, he quickly realized alcohol law was much more fun. Tom’s diverse practice includes advising supplier and retailer clients on trade practice issues, distribution, promotions, advertising, marketing, and tied-house issues. Tom has particular expertise in ecommerce and he advises many third party providers and others on emerging industry practices. If you have questions in these areas, or regarding foreign travel, the Denver Broncos, or Star Wars, Tom’s probably got the answers. To learn more about Tom and Strike & Techel, visit us at www.alcohol.law.
Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1032 (“SB 1032”) into law. SB 1032 amends Section 25600.3 of the California Business and Professions Code, and extends the recent prohibition on supplier-funded beer, cider and perry coupons to wine. You can read more about the prohibition of supplier-funded beer coupons in our prior blog post here. What is permitted post-SB 1032? The law still permits discounts on alcoholic beverages in other forms, including mail-in rebates by wine and beer suppliers, all retailer-funded coupons, and instant coupons funded by distilled spirits suppliers for distilled spirits (provided the coupon does not also discount beer or wine). Furthermore, beer manufacturers and winegrowers can still offer instant rebates at their premises, and can offer rebates direct to consumer on internet sales. When are the changes effective? The new law takes effect on January 1, 2017. Supplier-funded wine coupons can continue to be accepted at retail until December 31, 2016, and suppliers will be able to continue redeeming coupons accepted by a retailer until March 31, 2017. Who can do what?
Effective January 1, 2016, the California ABC Act contains a new section that loosens the restrictions suppliers face when mentioning a retailer in a social media post. Newly added Business and Professions Code § 23355.3 is aimed at clarifying how suppliers and retailers can co-sponsor nonprofit events. It was drafted, in part, as a response to the backlash that occurred after the ABC filed accusations against several wineries for advertising sponsorship of the “Save Mart Grape Escape” charity fundraising event in 2014. In that instance, several wineries posted or tweeted their support and sponsorship of the event on social media. The ABC reasoned that the suppliers were impermissibly advertising for Save Mart, a retailer, even though the event was held under a nonprofit permit issued to a bona fide nonprofit organization. The ABC alleged that by posting or tweeting about the event, the suppliers were giving a thing of value to the retailer, a practice that has long been considered a violation of California’s tied house restrictions. California law has long permitted supplier licensees to sponsor nonprofit events if the nonprofit gets an event license, and the new law does not fundamentally change that. However, the new section clarifies that a supplier may advertise sponsorship or participation in such events even if a retailer is also a named sponsor of the event. Payments or other consideration to the retailer are still considered a thing of value, and are not allowed, but social media postings no longer fall under that broad category. There are restrictions on what the supplier is permitted to post about the retailer; posts cannot contain the retail price of alcoholic beverages and cannot promote or advertise for the retail licensee beyond mentioning sponsorship or participation in the event. The supplier can share a retailer’s advertisement for the event on social media, but the supplier is not permitted to pay or reimburse the retailer for any advertisement and cannot demand exclusivity of its products at the event. In short, the new section will allow exactly the type of supplier social media support that occurred in the Save Mart Grape Escape situation.
In December 2014, the California ABC posted a new Industry Advisory about merchandising services. Free services provided by suppliers to retail licensees, such as stocking shelves, pricing inventory, rotating stock, etc., are prohibited things-of-value under California Business & Professions Code sections 25500 and 25502. However, a number of permitted exceptions are separately provided for in Section 25503.2. The Advisory was posted in response to inquiries and complaints about the scope of permissible activity. When ABC receives multiple complaints about impermissible conduct, investigations and license accusations may well follow, so it would be prudent for suppliers to review the scope of permissible merchandising activities. Permitted activity varies depending on the type of retailer and the products involved so we created a simple chart below to help keep it straight. Note that in all cases, any merchandising activities can only be done with the retailer’s permission. In no case can a supplier move the inventory of another supplier, except for “incidental touching” to access the space allocated to the licensee providing the merchandising service. Imbiblog is published for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Copyright © 2015 · All Rights Reserved ·
Effective January 1, 2013, California AB 2349 amended Business and Professions Code Section 25500.1 and repealed Section 25500.2. The two sections (25500.1 and 25500.2) were duplicative in that both permitted suppliers to list the names of two or more restaurants that carry their products. Section 25500.2 included beer, wine and distilled spirits suppliers, while 25500.1 pertained to suppliers of wine and brandy. The newly amended 25500.1 covers suppliers of beer, wine and distilled spirits. In addition to consolidating the two laws, the newly amended Section 25500.1 removes the requirement that the listed on-sale retailers be restaurants - suppliers can now list bars and clubs that do not serve food. The new Section 25500.1 also clarifies that suppliers can list “other electronic media” with the retailers’ names, addresses and websites, which would include the retailers’ twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and other social media forums. The revised Section 25500.1 parallels the existing and unchanged Section 25502.1, which pertains to supplier listings of off-sale retailers. Section 25502.1 has not been revised to include “other electronic media” as a means to list the retailers’ information, but we believe it is intended to parallel the on-sale provisions of Section 25500.1. Note that the on-sale and off-sale statutes both include restrictions, e.g., the listings may not include retail prices; the supplier must list at least two unaffiliated retailers; and the retailer may not pay for the listing. For information about these statutes or any other California trade practices questions, please contact any of the attorneys at Strike and Techel. Imbiblog is published for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Copyright © 2013 · All Rights Reserved ·
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