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Two Steps Forward, A Couple Back (or Maybe Sideways)

“Tied House” laws contain two categories of restrictions on licensed beverage businesses not found in other industries.

One is general prohibition of beverage suppliers’ furnishing things of value to retailers, with certain exceptions (notably goods the retailer has paid for). The other is general prohibition of ownership or investment by a supplier company or its investors in a retailing company and vice versa, again with certain exceptions. Details vary by state, and there is an overlay of federal tied house law, most of which kicks in only if the prohibited act to some degree excludes a competitor from trade.

Originally, tied house laws were intended to prevent return upon Repeal to the vertical integration, primarily brewery-saloon, that was a prime target of the Prohibition movement. As economic relations have evolved since the early 1930s, the purpose has shifted toward protecting interests of the middle distribution tier, and especially toward countering the growing influence of large chain retailers which, but for tied house legislation, would treat alcoholic beverages in the same stringent cost-reducing manner as other grocery items.

On May 15, 2009 the Washington governor signed a bill that has been loudly touted as loosening that state’s highly restrictive tied house law. Purported reforms permit some trade practices claimed to have been previously forbidden and introduce the possibility of investment and outright ownership between tiers, which had previously been limited to extremely narrow circumstances. However, a close reading reveals that the supposed relaxation is in large part illusory and may net out to tightening Washington’s tied house restrictions.

For a skeptical view of the bill’s particulars, go to the “Legal Developments” page at and click on the link to HB 2040.

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