Regulators Won’t Enforce Prohibition-Era Beer Law, but Uncertainty Remains

In recent weeks, a 77-year-old law prohibiting Maine businesses from displaying the alcohol content of beers earned Maine national attention. The law, enacted in the wake of Prohibition, prohibits signs or labels referring “in any manner to the alcoholic strength of the malt liquor” or using “such words as ‘extra strength,’ or ‘pre-war strength.’” The Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages & Lottery Operations recently began interpreting this law to prevent the display of alcohol-by-volume (ABV) numbers on signs or menus, and issued warnings to restaurants and bars throughout the state. Thankfully, on Tuesday the Bureau announced a new enforcement policy. But is the problem really solved?

The Bureau has announced it will not enforce the law against bar or restaurant operators who display the ABV of beer on signs or menus in an unembellished manner, as it appears on the label. Anything else that reflects on the beer’s strength (for instance, “It’ll get ya drunk!”) will still be subject to the law.

The policy change is welcome to many, as commentators have argued that ABV labeling is a matter of public safety and consumer rights. For instance, a beer drinker used Bud Light’s 4.2% ABV might be in for a shock if they had just one Sam Adams Triple Bock, weighing in at a whopping 18%. The law may also be unconstitutional: The legislative push to deny consumers ABV information is a remnant of state and federal laws arising in the wake of Prohibition, such as the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAAA). The FAAA was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995 as an unconstitutional restraint on commercial speech. However, its legacy of patchwork state legislation lives on.

While the Bureau has backpedaled on its decision to enforce the law to prevent display of ABVs, the law remains on the books and open to future interpretation. As long as this potentially unconstitutional law remains unchanged, regulators may prevent businesses from displaying the alcohol content of the beverages their customers consume. Fortunately, one legislator, Representative Luis Luchini (D-Ellsworth), has already submitted a bill to resolve the law’s ambiguity and ensure ABV information remains available to consumers.

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