Industry trade association sites
Allow me to venture a little outside the strictly legal world and into business for one post. The other day in class when we were discussing administrative online sources and how different trade groups might track relevant issues, I was reminded of how we used to rely on several trade groups and their websites to keep us up to date on the happenings in the wine, beer, and liquor business.
Granted, you have to be careful with all of these types of sites because they are run by special interest groups and thus might mischaracterize some things, but these big organizations employ many experts in the field and take their responsibilities to the businesses that rely on them seriously. The ones I used to use have always been very professional, useful, pretty thorough, and (best of all) free. I’m sure pretty much every business has at least one go-to group that watches out for their interests and stays abreast of legal concerns, but I’ll just highlight one that I was most familiar with while working – a booze site!
One of the oldest and most reputable in our industry is DISCUS (www.discus.org) – the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. “The Distilled Spirits Council is the national trade association representing America’s leading distillers and nearly 70% of all distilled spirits brands sold in this country. Over the years, the Council has served as the distillers’ voice on policy and legislative issues in our nation’s capital, state capitals and foreign capitals worldwide. Our strong commitment to responsibility is the foundation of everything we do as an organization and as an industry.” DISCUS not only provides information on the actual laws that affect the spirits industry, but also is the best source for something called the Code of Responsible Practices, which was voluntarily passed by all the distillers following the repeal of Prohibition and unofficially governs a lot of what liquor companies do. For example, have you ever noticed that you don’t see ads for Captain Morgan during daylight television hours (and until 1996, never)? That’s actually not a federal law. Instead it was a “gentleman’s agreement” amongst the hard liquor companies (since 1936 radio) to not advertise on television – set forth in the Code of Responsible Practices, available at DISCUS. By the Code, “members hold themselves to a standard higher than mandated by any law or regulation.” According to the website, this approach to self-regulation has actually been pointed to as a model for other industries by the Federal Trade Commission. DISCUS then reviews possible violations of this Code in quasi-judicial determinations and publishes quarterly public reports of compliance decisions – much like a real agency would. If you ever find yourself representing a liquor advertiser, this is the place to go to find out, not just what is legal, but what is acceptable.
DISCUS also provides a “Distilled Spirits Council Summary of State Laws & Regulations Relating to Distilled Spirits” (available in hard copy and very useful and still free I think). The site has information about alcohol excise taxes – albeit with a very distinct viewpoint (“Responsible consumers of distilled spirits already pay more than their fair share. The Federal excise tax rate on distilled spirits is almost three times the rate on table wine and two times the rate on beer. There is a wide disparity in alcohol tax rates at the state level, as well, with spirits being taxed nearly two times higher than table wine and nearly three times higher than beer!”). It also provides a lot of useful information about issues by state – not just local taxes, but also Sunday sales (allowed in NY), product tastings (according to the downloadable map, New York only allows spirits tasting in off-premises locations – stores, not bars and restaurants), and the banning of AWOL machines (those alcohol-without-liquid gasmask devices that came to the US a few years ago). On the federal level, there is preliminary information about spirits aging warehouses and exemption from the Clean Air Act, the law against excise-free in-bond transfers (sending a bottle from one warehouse to another of the same owner), and again of course taxes.
These aren’t wildly in-depth blurbs and you would only want to use them as a jumping-off point for your substantive research, but it’s really nice having all the possible concerns (even ones your new client might be aware of) in one place to get you started, rather than try to find everything piecemeal on federal, state, and administrative law sites. Again, DISCUS freely acknowledges that it represents a certain set of interests so the information might not be biasfree. But it’s still a great site that you might want to look at if you or a client were running a bar or restaurant, liquor store, or any other kind of alcohol-important business. And of course it would definitely be worth looking into what sources are available for other businesses. Especially if you find yourself working for a client with an industry-specific problem. Rather than reinvent the wheel, check one of the relevant trade sites to see if your client’s problem has already been addressed, remedied, or is currently being litigated elsewhere.