Feds target alcohol on social media

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau recently unveiled new guidelines for how wineries, distilleries and breweries can market themselves and their products on social media, making the formal distinction that all activity on social media for such businesses is a form of advertising and thus subject to oversight.

[caption id="attachment_77309" align="alignright" width="372"] Jay Behmke, Rick Van Duzer, Nick Donovan[/caption]

While the decision didn't surprise legal experts or most businesses already using such platforms for promotion, the new guidelines do mean that alcohol-producing businesses -- especially smaller, startup companies -- should take careful note to make sure they are in compliance to avoid potential fines for errant activity, attorneys in the North Bay said.

"What they're saying now is all social media is advertising. That's the fundamental decision, and so then you need to know what the regulations are," said Jay Behmke, a partner at Santa Rosa-based Carle, Mackie, Power & Ross who focuses on alcoholic beverage law.

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Under the new guidelines, released in May, social media is defined as any "service, platform, or site where users communicate and share media, such as pictures, videos, music, and blogs with other users," according to the industry circular. That broad definition includes sites like YouTube, any form of blog and also "microblogs" such as Twitter or Tumblr and mobile applications.

Although the TTB did acknowledge that disclosures would be difficult on outlets with limited character counts, it simultaneously said, "character limitations have no effect on the application of regulations regarding prohibited practices or statements ... thus, they must be followed for each mircoblog post."

Rick Van Duzer, who focuses on the wine industry among others for Farella Braun + Martel in St. Helena and San Francisco, said the conflicting message on microblogs would probably cause wineries to simply avoid such mediums altogether.

"They want to be thinking about whether or not they want to use those tools in their marketing," Mr. Van Duzer said, adding that enforcement of the provision is not yet clear either. "I don't think it's going to be possible to comply with it if you've got to have the disclosure information in every blog post. You may see people retreating from that type of media because it's so hard to comply."

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