The Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations is standing its ground in favor of a ban on the sale of small liquor bottles known as nips.
In response to testimony submitted by opponents of the proposal, the bureau said none of the critics disputed the 50-milliliter bottles are “contributing to illegal drinking and driving.”
It said the tiny bottles allow drivers “to more easily evade open container prohibitions” and that the evidence that people are guzzling them down while they’re behind the wheel is quickly seen in the “widespread and increasing number” of empties along Maine’s roads.
The State Liquor and Lottery Commission plans Tuesday to decide whether to go along with the recommendation of Gregory Mineo, the bureau’s director. Gov. Paul LePage pushed for a ban after legislators overrode his veto of a bill to add a nickel deposit on the 50-milliliter bottles.
A Lewiston bottler of the fast-growing Fireball Cinnamon Whisky brand, Sazerac Co., has said the proposal to bar nips starting next year would undermine some of its 130 jobs and put a $1 million expansion plan in doubt. Other critics said a ban would crimp sales and encourage consumers to head to New Hampshire to buy nips.
In Mineo’s response to opponents, he said the few financial concerns raised “do not outweigh the road safety risks” posed by drivers chugging nips they often buy from convenience stores.
He countered an objection raised by the Retail Association of Maine, which said a ban “may make the problem worse as those individuals that choose to drink and drive will now choose a larger bottle of spirits to consume,” by pointing out that larger bottles are harder to chug and chuck.
Relying on larger bottles, Mineo said, “will not facilitate drinking and driving to the same extent” as nips.
He said the “natural transition” to larger containers also will “substantially mitigate any revenue loss to the state” from the loss of income from the sale of nips.
Mineo acknowledged the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association has a point in saying the proposed ban isn’t consistent with the bureau’s marketing strategy in recent years that has focused on de-listing slow-selling products, not popular ones.
“However,” he said, “the bureau has never before faced a situation where it has become apparent that a listed product is posing an unnecessary risk to public safety.”
Mineo said there is “strong evidence” that nips are contributing to drinking and driving so the commission ought to bar them in keeping with its responsibility to ensure revenue growth is achieved “in a socially responsible manner.”
Mineo said the grocers association’s claim sales will shift to New Hampshire outlets is off the mark.
He said it “ignores the fact that the proposed de-listing does not ban a type of spirits. It simply de-lists a type of container.”
“No consumer will be forced to cross the border in order to purchase his or her favorite spirits,” Mineo said. “The typical consumer in Maine will simply transition to a larger bottle.”
“To the extent that some consumers refuse to transition and insist on drinking spirits” from nips, he said, “the number of those consumers is likely to be small and their motives for doing so may not be socially responsible.”
Mineo said that since the vast majority of nip sales are made at convenience stores, there is evidence they are likely to be impulse buys that people generally wouldn’t leave the state to make.
Mineo brushed aside Sazerac’s insistence that there’s no solid evidence that nips contribute to drunken driving. He said convictions for driving under the influence are up the last couple of years, the same period that nip sales have exploded.
He also took issue with Sazerac’s claim that Maine will experience an “economic loss” of $280 million over the next 13 years. The company offered “no explanation of what comprises this loss and no data upon which this estimation is made,” Mineo said.
Mineo said Sazerac’s concern about losing out on sales for the products of its Lewiston bottling plant are perhaps overblown.
He said that if liquor commissioners agree to the ban, the bureau “will focus efforts on transitioning” sales to larger size containers “that have historically best served consumer demand in a socially responsible manner.”
“We are confident that this continuous effort will sustain positive results for all state suppliers and all agency store licensees well into the future,” Mineo said.
The hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Augusta State Armory, 179 Western Ave. in Augusta. Commissioners are expected to discuss the issue after hearing testimony and perhaps make a decision on the proposed ban.