October 23, 2017
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Maine liquor regulators urge a ban on nips

By Steve Collins, Sun Journal
Updated:
Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
A 50-milliliter bottle of Fireball Whisky sits on the ground by Route 1 in Orland in this 2014 photo.

Banning small liquor bottles known as nips will reduce littering, make it harder to drive while drinking and cause “no significant loss of revenues” for the state, according to state alcohol regulators.

The soaring popularity of “nips” in recent years is mostly due to the volume of nip sales at convenience stores.

In a formal recommendation to commissioners, the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations recently offered a full-throated defense of Gov. Paul LePage’s call to de-list all spirits packaged in 50-milliliter bottles.

Gregory Mineo, the bureau’s director, said his recommendation that nip sales cease in January is the result of the attention focused on the issue as the governor and Legislature quarreled about whether to impose a nickel deposit on the tiny bottles that have become increasingly popular.

What they learned, he said, is that consumers are likely to continue to buy liquor even if they can no longer get nips “that facilitate drinking and driving.”

The proposal is likely to impact the jobs of some of the 130 workers at a plant in Lewiston that bottles the most popular brand of nips sold in the state.

Sazerac Co., which sells the fast-growing Fireball brand bottled in Lewiston, could not be reached for comment Monday. Its spokeswoman said recently it would have no comment on the nips fight in Maine.

The liquor bureau is taking a look at a nips ban after LePage urged the move in response to the Legislature’s decision to override his veto of a bill that sought to impose a nickel deposit on the wee bottles beginning in 2019. Lawmakers said a deposit would help clean up roads that are increasingly littered with empty nips.

Mineo said in his recommendation the liquor board has a duty “not just to ensure the growth of revenue from the sale of spirits,” but to do so “in a socially responsible manner.”

“At first glance there may appear to be a trade-off — safer roads but a loss of spirits revenues,” Mineo said. He said, though, that a closer look at consumer behavior shows the state won’t lose much money if it bans nips.

“Consumers will continue to purchase spirits even if they are no longer bottled in containers that facilitate drinking and driving, and the state will continue to collect revenue from the sale of these spirits,” he said.

“Public safety demands that we no longer list spirits in containers that facilitate drinking and driving. Safer roads are priceless,” Mineo said.

LePage and others have said that many nips buyers gulp down the small bottles while driving and then wing their empties out the window to get rid of the evidence they had been drinking behind the wheel, exacerbating the problems of littering and drunken driving.

Mineo said the “negative impact on the environment of these discarded containers is substantial and evident,” but adding a deposit on the bottles “does nothing to address the underlying cause of this litter — those who consume and discard 50 ml spirits containers while driving.”

“It is self-evident that discarded containers along roadsides come from occupants of vehicles,” he said.

As a result, Mineo said, it’s clear that nip bottles “are not just unsightly litter; they are concrete evidence of widespread drinking while driving and a strong indicator that the roadways of Maine are becoming increasingly more dangerous.”

There are 333 products listed for sale in Maine by the commission that are packaged as nips. But Sazerac’s Fireball Cinnamon Whisky brand makes up half of nip sales in Maine, selling nearly five times as many bottles as its closest competitor, Dr. McGillicuddy’s Mentholmint Liqueur.

Sazerac’s chief executive officer, Mark Brown, said in a letter to the Senate president in May that his 130 employees in Lewiston earn an average of $50,000 yearly bottling Fireball whiskey, which he referred to as a “homegrown product that has created numerous jobs.”

Mineo said that arguments that banning nips will cause the state to lose millions in spirits tax revenue are unfounded.

“It is important to remember that the Bureau’s proposal does not in any way prohibit the sale of any type of spirits,” he said. Instead it only intends to ban “a particular type of delivery system,” namely the tiny bottles.

Mineo said that many consumers who buy nips now “are not likely to simply give up drinking those beverages” simply because nips are not available.

“Instead, they will likely transition to a larger container, moving from one revenue generating product to another revenue generating product, thereby eliminating, or at least substantially mitigating, any loss of revenues,” he said.

Moreover, he said, to whatever extent the lack of nips “causes consumers to refrain from alcohol because it is less convenient to drink while driving, that will be a positive outcome, no matter what the resulting loss of revenues to the state might be.”

Mineo said that littering will get a bigger boost from a ban than it would from a mere deposit on the bottles.

He said “the complete absence” of nips bottles “is by far a more effective way to ensure that such containers do not end up on Maine’s roadsides than simply making the discarded bottles redeemable for 5 cents.”

Mineo said that those who do continue to discard bottles while they are driving won’t cause as much litter after a ban because they will be tossing “fewer containers at fewer locations and each of these larger containers will have the more lucrative 15-cent redemption value.”

He urged liquor board commissioners to back his call for ending the sale of nips in Maine on Jan. 12, 2018.

The nips hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 11, at the Augusta State Armory, 179 Western Ave. in Augusta. Commissioners plan to make a decision at the end of the hearing. It will be held on Aug. 8 if the state shutdown is still underway Wednesday.

 


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