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Local Column

Akst: Happy hour specials return in Illinois

I’d say, “I remember it like it was yesterday,” but there would be problems with that.

First, “it” happened years ago. Second, my memory of the whole thing is fuzzy. But I do know I was extremely foolish and lucky.

What happened was, a buddy and I went to a popular bar one Friday evening when we were college students. A local radio station was hosting happy hour.

The drink special: 10 cents a drink for an hour, no limit.

I favored gin and tonics, and the chance to party righteously for a dollar (or less) was too strong, for me and the probably 200 other people at the bar.

We made it home without incident, thank God, but I was dangerously over-intoxicated.

That anecdote makes me sound like a booze hound, so just to clarify: this was back in college. I occasionally still enjoy a wee dram, but my main beverage of choice these days is coffee (not Irish coffee, just coffee).

I also realize this sounds like I’m blaming my bad behavior on a drink special. Nope, it was all me. People do overindulge when it’s easier to do so, but nobody forced me to keep drinking.

Still, the idea of drinking so cheaply was compelling. It wasn’t even that I was that broke. I just really liked the idea of cocktails for a dime each.

So, I’m troubled by Wednesday’s news that happy hour drink specials are once again lawful in Illinois. They had been illegal since 1989.

And in a state where nothing in government happens quickly or smoothly, by golly, this thing got done by sundown. The House passed the bill May 28, the Senate passed it May 31, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed it into law Wednesday, and the law goes into effect immediately.

There are restrictions. As reported widely, discounts will be allowed for up to four hours a day and up to 15 hours a week, but they must be advertised a week in advance and can’t run after 10 p.m. Volume specials – twofers – remain illegal. Also, drinks can’t be given away as prizes, no games can involve drinking, and bars can’t offer unlimited drinks for one price (my G&T debacle).

Proponents and critics are saying what you might expect. Those supporting the return of happy hour specials say it levels the playing field, makes Illinois more competitive, and will increase revenue and tourism. Critics worry that excessive drinking and driving while intoxicated will increase.

By any measure, booze and cars don’t mix well. According to the Illinois Secretary of State, in 2012, 41 percent of the 956 people killed in crashes were alcohol related, and more than 37,000 drivers are arrested annually for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics in Illinois. Nationally, nearly a third of fatal crashes in 2012 involved alcohol.

Meanwhile, legislation to decriminalize marijuana – which would definitely increase revenue and tourism – seems to be going nowhere. Legislation to do so arrived on Rauner’s desk in June. But, that’s a story for another day.

For now, the best wisdom I can impart is that drink specials are risky. Have one drink, eat some food, drink some water and go home.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as Executive Secretary for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association. Learn more about NINA at http://ninaonline.org. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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