Massachusetts moving toward first statewide 'happy hour' ban.

A tempered temperance movement is sweeping Massachusetts. In an effort to reduce drunk driving, several towns and cities, among them Braintree, Framingham, Quincy, and Springfield, have banned so-called ''happy hours'' in local bars and restaurants.

Now the state is getting into the act. George McCarthy, chairman of the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC), predicts that a statewide ban on happy hours may be in place by Thanksgiving.

Mr. McCarthy says the happy hour is no longer a period of ''relaxation'' in the early evening in the neighborhood pub. In many cases, he says, it now is primarily a promotional device, designed to lure patrons into a bar. This is done by offering two, three, or four drinks for the price of one, free drinks, reduced prices on drinks for women on particular evenings, and ''chug-a-lug contests.''

In addition, McCarthy says, happy hour often lasts as many as four or five hours.

The result, he explains, is that patrons tend to drink more than they normally would. Banning the process, McCarthy says, is ''one piece of the solution to drunk driving.''

The ABCC held seven public hearings across the state over the past three months to assess public support for a statewide ban on happy hours. McCarthy says educators, elected officials, and groups working to end drunk driving spoke in favor of the proposal. Few barkeepers showed up to speak against it, he notes.

Leonard Sacks, an associate professor of psychology at Boston University, says there is relatively little data on the effects of happy hours. But he adds, ''These promotions cannot help but result in an increase of alcohol consumed, and cannot help but contribute to alcohol abuse.''

He says ''alcoholism is the number one health problem today,'' contributing to such social problems as child abuse and loss of worker productivity. In addition, 15-20 percent of health-care costs in the United States are related to alcohol abuse, Dr. Sacks told the ABCC commissioners at a hearing last week in Boston.

Boston City Councilor Brian McGlaughlin supports the proposed ban. He says that in his council district, Alston-Brighton, there are 50 bars, with a total capacity of 10,000 patrons. ''One-sixth of the residents of the district can be at a bar at any one time,'' he points out.

Happy hours provide ''excessive incentives'' to drink too much, Mr. McGlaughlin says. And he is especially concerned about the thousands of college students who live in the district.

Mr. McGlaughlin says he will submit a proposal to ban happy hours in Boston to the City Council, to show that the capital city supports the statewide ban.

George Miller, a member of the group Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, says: ''It's time to put our values in order. The ban will send another message to potential drunk drivers.''

At the hearings held in Lynn and Boston, only three people spoke in favor of happy hours.

Miles Cares, proprieter of ''t.t. the bear's place'' in Cambridge, said at the hearing that drunk driving is ''bad business, but a happy hour is legitimate.''

He said his establishment has a happy hour as a way to thank regular customers, to ''let them relax and enjoy themselves.'' He says there are responsible ways of running a bar.

Commissioner McCarthy says the ABCC realizes that many bar owners are ''legitimate business people.'' But, he says, the question of banning happy hours is one of ''profitmaking versus public safety.''

''Public opinion is swinging,'' he says. ''The public will demand that authorities do it (regulate the industry).''

In fact, McCarthy says, many bar owners are amenable to stopping their happy-hour promotions, if their competition does the same.

Also, he says, it makes little sense for individual towns to ban the practice while neighboring towns continue to allow it. This can exacerbate the problem, he says, as people drive to other towns to find cheap drinks.

These factors argue for a statewide ban, McCarthy says.

Yet Andrea Gargiulo, chairwoman of the Boston Licensing Commission, says she ''hasn't seen any evidence which would warrant general bans.''

She says some small towns may need such a policy, as they might not be able to adequately police all the local bars. But Boston, she says, can police itself.

''Politically, it's not attractive to be in a position of supporting happy hours,'' she says, but Boston should be exempt from the ban. She would rather see local barkeepers consent to limiting their promotions. This might include doing away with free drinks, or limiting two-for-one specials to the first round of drinks, she says.

If the ban passes, Ms. Gargiulo predicts bar owners will challenge it in court. ''I can't imagine them taking it lying down.''

But McCarthy says if the hearings the ABCC held were any indication, there will be little opposition to the statewide ban. There are 1,100 businesses in the Boston area holding liquor licenses, he says, and yet at last week's public hearing, ''no one shows up.''

Following the hearing in Boston, both ABCC commissioners, McCarthy and Louis Cassis, announced their decision to impose a ban. (One seat on the three-member commission is vacant.)

Only the governor's approval is needed to cement the statewide ban.

''It's in everybody's interest to get behind this thing,'' McCarthy says. ''There's a movement out there - the biggest since the 1930s. The public is demanding it.''

Michigan, Delaware, and New Jersey are all considering happy-hour bans.

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