CONCORD — The Senate Finance Committee split Tuesday on legislation bill that would allow billboard advertising of alcoholic beverages in New Hampshire.
Senate Bill 329 received initial approval from the full Senate on Feb. 6 and was passed to the finance committee for a review of potential costs or financial benefit to the state.
But at a hearing, the policy of whether to allow billboard advertising, and the effect such advertising may have on alcohol consumption by Granite Staters, particularly young residents, was again debated.
The finance committee then voted 3-3 on separate motions recommending that the bill be killed and recommending that the bill ought to pass. Under Senate rules, the split votes resulted in an “inexpedient to legislate” recommendation.
Voting against the bill were Sens. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, and Sen. Bob Odell, R-Lempster. In favor of passing the bill were Sens. Peter Bragdon, R-Merrimack, Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord, and Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester.
All committee members voted as they did when the bill first passed the Senate, 14-10, last month.
The sponsor, state Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, told the panel that current law banning billboard advertising of alcoholic beverages is unconstitutional because it discriminates against the freedom of speech of certain businesses in how they may advertise their products.
She noted that the State Liquor Commission reported that it could not determine the effect of billboard advertising on state revenue, and that there is no negative effect on state expenditures.
New Hampshire is the only state in the nation that forbids alcoholic beverage advertising on billboards. The bill is modeled after other states’ laws by forbidding “brand” advertising on any billboard within 500 feet of a school.
Soucy noted that the liquor commission advertises its outlets on a huge billboard just south of the border on Interstate 93 in Massachusetts, and she said the commission should be afforded same opportunity in its home state.
But Stiles, arguing that the bill should be studied for a year, said there were “too many questions” involving enforcement. The Department of Transportation regulates the use of all billboards in New Hampshire, while the liquor commission regulates advertising of alcohol products.
Morse said that allowing liquor, wine and beer to be advertised on billboards “could hurt the family-friendly brand of the state,” which he said could hurt tourism-generated revenue.
Tim Rourke, chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment, said the state has the third-highest alcohol consumption rate in the country and noted abuse results in a high cost to state and local governments.
“Science has shown that the existence of advertising is a contributing factor to youth alcohol consumption,” he said.
Rourke said the commission opposes the bill. A spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan said she has not yet taken a position on it, however, and will review it.
Larsen questioned how billboard advertising influences youth behavior given the many types of advertising they constantly see and hear.
Valerie Morgan of the state Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Services, said 33.5 percent of young Granite Staters age 12 to 20 have tried alcohol, as compared to a national average of 25.6 percent.
She said keeping alcoholic beverages off of billboards “is one way we can have some control over that.”
John Mahoney, a sales representative for CBS Outdoor, a major owner of billboards in New Hampshire and nationally, said it is a freedom of speech issue.
Proponents said the bill would allow small breweries and wineries in New Hampshire another avenue for advertising.
But Tricia Lucas of the youth-oriented anti-drug abuse program New Futures said she expects the large corporate distilleries will be the major advertisers, “Maker’s Mark, flavored Vodka, not the small businesses in New Hampshire.”
Craig Moakley, chief operating officer of the State Liquor Commission, said the commission is neutral on the bill, but believes that if passed it should include specifics outlining how the commission and transportation department would interact in implementing it.