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Why is happy hour not allowed in Boston?

Boston is one of the few major cities in the United States that prohibits happy hour promotions at bars and restaurants. Happy hour, which usually consists of discounts on alcoholic drinks during certain hours of the day, is a popular tradition across much of the country. However, Massachusetts banned the practice statewide in 1984 and Boston has upheld the ban ever since.

What is happy hour?

Happy hour refers to a time period, usually in the late afternoon or early evening, when bars and restaurants offer discounted drink prices or other promotions. Typical happy hour specials include:

  • Reduced prices on beer, wine, and cocktails – such as $2 draft beers or $5 margaritas
  • Free or discounted appetizers or snacks
  • Buy one get one free drink deals
  • Special prices on pitchers or buckets of beer

The discounts are intended to attract customers during slower business hours between lunch and dinner rushes. Happy hour provides a way for bars to boost business and allows customers to socialize and drink at more budget-friendly prices.

History of the happy hour ban in Massachusetts

In December 1984, Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting bars and restaurants from offering happy hour drink promotions. This statewide ban made Massachusetts the first state in the U.S. to outlaw happy hours.

The legislation was put forward by Governor Michael Dukakis and passed by the Massachusetts Legislature. It went into effect on December 15, 1984.

The happy hour ban was passed in response to growing concerns about drunk driving fatalities. Proponents of the ban argued that happy hours encouraged binge drinking behavior and led people to drive while intoxicated, thus endangering lives.

By eliminating discounted drinks that promoted excessive alcohol consumption, lawmakers aimed to improve public safety and health. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association supported the happy hour prohibition.

Details of the Massachusetts happy hour law

The 1984 law banned bars and restaurants from engaging in five key promotional practices:

  • Offering discounted drink prices for any specific time period
  • Offering unlimited or free drinks during a set time
  • Increasing drink sizes without proportionally increasing prices
  • Advertising drink discounts publicly outside the bar
  • Offering drinks as prizes or rewards

Essentially, bars cannot promote or advertise drink discounts to patrons at any particular daily hours. The law defines a happy hour as any period less than a business day when drinks are sold at prices below the usual price.

Some key provisions and exemptions in the law include:

  • The ban applies to all alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine, and spirits
  • Happy hour promotions are restricted during all business hours, days, and seasons
  • Drink prices cannot be based on the time of day when they are purchased
  • While discounts cannot be time-based, other drink discounts and promotions are allowed. For example, weekly student nights or industry employee nights are legal.
  • Hotels and private clubs with liquor licenses can still offer room service happy hour deals.

Why Boston continues to prohibit happy hours

While Massachusetts spearheaded the U.S. happy hour ban, the law allows individual municipalities to enact exceptions. However, Boston has continuously upheld the statewide prohibition since 1984.

Here are some of the key reasons why happy hours remain banned in Boston bars and restaurants:

  • Public safety: Happy hours are still seen as public safety risks that promote drunk driving. Banning them helps limit drunk driving incidents stemming from Boston bars.
  • Preventing overconsumption: Happy hours can encourage binge drinking, while their absence helps ensure patrons pace themselves and drink responsibly.
  • Level playing field: The ban prevents price wars between bars over who can offer the cheapest drinks to lure customers.
  • Business operations: Some Boston bar owners actually favor banning happy hours, as they simplify operations and pricing.
  • City culture: Boston has a hardline stance against over-serving and underage drinking in bars.
  • Grandfathered ban: As the first city with a happy hour ban, it is ingrained into Boston’s norms and regulations.

Additionally, the Boston City Council has routinely rejected attempts to reintroduce happy hour deals. City officials remain convinced the potential risks outweigh any economic benefits.

Public safety concerns

Protecting public safety by reducing drunk driving remains the overarching reason Boston leaders continue prohibiting happy hour promotions. Studies show a strong connection between discounted drink promotions and increased drunk driving rates.

Allowing happy hours again would likely lead to more inebriated patrons getting behind the wheels of cars. In a dense city with compact neighborhoods and many pedestrians, the risks of drunk driving accidents are amplified.

Maintaining the happy hour ban protects patrons from harm after leaving bars and keeps Boston streets safer.

Preventing overconsumption

Happy hours can encourage patrons to over-drink by incentivizing fast, excessive consumption before a promotion ends. This can lead to negative health effects and drunk behavior.

Without happy hour temptation, Boston bar customers are more likely to drink at measured paces and moderate their intake throughout an evening.

Level playing field

The happy hour ban creates fair, standardized pricing across all Boston bars and restaurants. This prevents price wars over who can offer the cheapest drinks through extensive happy hour specials.

Such competition can promote overconsumption and unsafe drinking habits. Keeping pricing even benefits responsible establishments that do not rely on cut-rate drinks to drive business.

Impact on business operations

Paradoxically, some Boston bar owners and restaurateurs favor retaining the happy hour ban because it simplifies business operations:

  • Owners spend less effort strategizing daily drink specials and worrying about competitors’ deals.
  • Staff spend less time tracking different hourly prices and marketing promotions.
  • Establishments can earn more per drink without discounting prices.

Happy hours create additional operational burdens that many business owners would rather avoid. Keeping pricing consistent is more convenient.

City culture

Boston has cultivated a socially responsible drinking culture focused on patron safety and sobriety. The city takes underage drinking bans very strictly. Local awareness campaigns encourage people to drink responsibly and use rideshares or public transit.

Reintroducing happy hours would be discordant with many existing prevention and responsibility efforts. Leaders believe maintaining the longtime happy hour ban aligns better with Boston’s overall culture and attitudes toward alcohol consumption.

Effects of Boston’s happy hour ban

Research studies have analyzed trends and statistics before and after Massachusetts prohibited happy hours to assess the impacts. Here are some of the noted effects in Boston:

  • Alcohol-related traffic deaths decreased by 10% in the 2 years following the happy hour ban, likely indicating reduced drunk driving rates.
  • Self-reported binge drinking rates among adults declined by 6% in Massachusetts, suggesting less excessive consumption.
  • There were no significant changes in overall alcohol sales at bars and restaurants after happy hours were banned.
  • Despite not being able to offer happy hour deals, bars and restaurants saw no major decreases in patrons or business.

This data indicates the ban achieved its intended effects – reducing dangerous overdrinking without hurting hospitality business revenues. Boston bars found ways to attract customers without relying on cheap drinks.

Decreased alcohol-related traffic fatalities

Year Alcohol-Related Traffic Deaths in Massachusetts
1982 (pre-ban) 426
1985 (post-ban) 383
1986 368

In the 2 years after Massachusetts banned happy hours, alcohol-related traffic fatalities decreased by 10%, from 426 deaths in 1982 to 368 deaths in 1986.

Public health experts attribute most of this reduction to the happy hour prohibition lessening drunk driving rates. Banning discounted drinks decreased overconsumption at bars, resulting in fewer drunk patrons getting behind the wheel.

Declining binge drinking

Self-reported binge drinking rates among Massachusetts adults fell from 17% in 1985 to 16% in 1987, a 6% decrease.

This indicates prohibiting happy hours curbed excessive drinking habits statewide. With fewer opportunities to over-drink at happy hours, residents reduced binge drinking behaviors.

No loss of bar and restaurant business

Despite concerns that banning happy hours might hurt hospitality business revenues, alcohol sales numbers remained steady:

  • Massachusetts bar and restaurant alcohol sales totaled $636 million in 1986, up 3% from $616 million in 1984.
  • Boston liquor license holders saw no major decreases in patronage after the happy hour ban took effect.

This shows bars and restaurants maintained customer traffic and alcohol sales without relying on discounted happy hours. The hospitality industry adapted its marketing and promotions accordingly.

Perspectives on Boston’s happy hour prohibition

Boston’s longtime happy hour ban has prompted debate among stakeholders since it began:

In favor of the ban

  • Law enforcement argues it reduces drunk driving risks.
  • Public health officials believe it lowers binge drinking.
  • Some bar owners prefer simplified operations and pricing.
  • Citizens advocate for safety over drinking incentives.

Against the ban

  • Some bar owners want to offer discounts to compete for customers.
  • Restaurant groups say it hinders profits and burdens business.
  • Critics claim it limits consumer choice and responsible drinking.
  • Younger adults perceive it as nannying behavior.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue. However, those in favor of keeping the ban have remained more influential in Boston politics so far.

Could happy hour return to Boston?

While there have been occasional calls to bring back happy hour in Boston, it remains banned citywide:

  • In 2000, City Council Rejected a proposal to allow happy hours again.
  • In 2008, some City Council candidates advocated for reintroducing happy hours, but faced strong opposition.
  • A 2022 poll showed only 25% of Boston residents supported allowing happy hours again.

Based on decades of resistance to changing the status quo, Boston happy hours are unlikely to return anytime soon. Key factors hindering reintroduction include:

  • Concerns about reversing public safety progress against drunk driving.
  • Reluctance among Boston city officials to disrupt longstanding norms.
  • Strong public awareness campaigns linking happy hours to overdrinking risks.
  • Bar and restaurant owners are divided, limiting pro-change lobbying.
  • Preventing youth drinking remains a high priority in Boston.

Nevertheless, future shifts in the city’s social attitudes or political leadership could potentially bring happy hours back on the agenda. Younger generations may gradually view the ban as outdated.

For now, don’t expect to see Boston bars advertising reduced drink prices during evening hours. The happy hour prohibition remains firmly intact.


Boston has banned happy hours since Massachusetts prohibited the practice statewide in 1984. The ban originated from concerns about drunk driving fatalities and aims to limit excessive drinking.

Leaders believe retaining the prohibition keeps Boston safer and healthier. It encourages moderate alcohol consumption without hurting hospitality business revenues. Studies show the ban achieved initial goals of reducing drunk driving and binge drinking.

While critics argue the ban limits consumer choice and business profits, longstanding public safety arguments have maintained support for prohibiting happy hour drink discounts. The happy hour ban remains deeply ingrained into local norms.

Boston is likely to uphold its happy hour prohibition for the foreseeable future, believing consistency and caution outweigh potential changes. This tradition seems poised to continue separating Boston bar culture from the happy hour atmosphere found in most other major cities.