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Opinion

opinion | farah stockman

Bring back ‘happy hour’

The state OKs marijuana and gambling, but cheap drinks? Forget it

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

I hope I won’t get run out of town for this, but I have a confession to make: I like to drink a beer every now and then. And I don’t mind it one bit when the bartender charges me less between the hours of, say, 5 and 7 o’clock.

Am I the only one who finds it strange that a city famous for “Cheers” has endured a ban on “happy hour” for nearly three decades?

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I don’t think so. Bill Walczak, who is running for mayor, also expressed bewilderment last week: “How can Boston be a place where you can let your hair down and have fun when you don’t have the typical accoutrements of an urban area? Not even urban. My sister lives in Avenel, New Jersey. And they have happy hour.”

To be fair, it’s not just Boston. It’s a statewide ban, passed in 1984 under Governor Dukakis, whose brother died in a hit-and-run accident. We were the first state to take that step. More than a dozen followed, but few enforce their restrictions as zealously as we do.

Yes, my friends, we live in a state where doctors will soon be able to prescribe marijuana for stomach pain, and casinos will soon serve as much free whiskey as your liver can handle, as long as you’re gambling your money away. But somehow the geniuses in the control room here think civilization itself will unravel if your neighborhood bar gives you a dollar off on Thursday night.

Hey, you might say, doesn’t the ban save lives? The evidence, it turns out, is not so clear.

It’s true that the number of drunken driving fatalities dropped in Massachusetts, from 409 in 1983 to just 130 in 2011. The percentage of deaths related to alcohol dropped too, from 62 percent of all crashes to 39 percent.

But what happy hour’s enemies don’t tell you is: that’s a nationwide trend. Plenty of states — including California and New Hampshire — saw steeper declines, without giving up their hours of happiness.

According to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drunken driving has plunged since the 1980s due to the lowering of the legal alcohol limit and the raising of the drinking age to 21. Another big factor is just plain demographics: Baby boomers are getting older. Fewer wild teenagers are driving around.

Of course, Happy Hour does have its dark side. Society has good reason to discourage binge drinking, especially among college kids. Mothers Against Drunk Driving deserves a lot of credit for making it illegal — and “uncool” — to drive drunk. Banning bartenders from serving drunk people makes a lot of sense.

But if we really cared about saving lives, we would pay attention to what works. Look at Kansas, which recently repealed its happy hour ban but passed a law requiring DUI offenders to install in-car breathalyzers. The result? Drunken driving fatalities declined from 138 in 2010 to 92 last year. Punishing bad behavior works better than punishing everybody.

Is it really healthier for bars to discount French fries rather than drinks, during hours that are happy-ish? Obesity killed an estimated 1,300 people in Massachusetts last year — ten times the number that drunk drivers did.

And why should Boston — where people pay a premium to live in walking distance to bars — abide by the same rule as towns where the nearest drink is 40 miles away?

The happy hour ban sends a weird message that the price of drinks, rather than irresponsible drinking, is the problem. Which brings me to the real reason the ban persists: money.

Last year, the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission held five hearings across the state about lifting the ban. A grand total of 67 people attended. Most were restaurant and bar owners who feared the price wars that happy hour could bring. One bar owner lamented that if happy hour returns, anyone with a little bit of capital could “take a former shoe store, turn it into a bar, and start selling $2 drinks and undercut everyone.” Another complained that he had spent a fortune on upscale décor. Happy hour might put him at a disadvantage. So — big surprise — the board recommended keeping the ban. Happy hour, it wrote, is not “economically sound.”

Really? Tell that to New York, San Francisco, and Avenel. Tell that to Washington, D.C. I lived there for seven years. I miss it — happy hour at Soussi, the only place I could afford the world’s best Scotch. At Room 11’s “winter solstice” celebration, homemade walnut liquor was served. At “baby happy hour” at Wonderland, neighborhood moms flocked to picnic tables with strollers.

To me, happy hour isn’t about slamming cheap drinks, but creating a time and place to gather and do something new. If we want to keep talented young people in Boston, we ought to try it.

We have a choice in front of us, Boston. We could do the same old things the same old way we’ve always done them. Or do we could try the future on for size.

I vote for different. I vote for new. I vote for happy hour. A majority of candidates for mayor agree: Felix Arroyo, John Barros, John Connolly, Mike Ross, Charles Clemons Jr., Charles Yancey — and Bill Walczak.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @fstockman.
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