Citing the need to protect jobs and consumer choice, the Maine Liquor and Lottery Commission on Tuesday rejected Gov. Paul LePage’s bid to impose a ban on the sale of tiny liquor bottles known as “nips.”
By a 4-1 vote, the panel declined to go along with a recommendation to “de-list” the 50-milliliter bottles that have become the centerpiece of a battle between the governor and legislators who successfully imposed a nickel deposit on the containers over LePage’s objection.
“We should not take a hammer” to the problem, said Patricia Rice, a commissioner who rejected the ban.
Commissioners said they weren’t convinced by arguments the fast-growing nips market is responsible for a small uptick in operating under the influence convictions. They also said they didn’t want to undermine a Lewiston bottler that sells about half of the nips in Maine.
The only commissioner to favor the ban, Larry Davis, said he believes there is enough evidence to think the nips, “a very cheap, impulse-driven product,” are contributing to more drunken driving.
He asked his colleagues to search their hearts and at least de-list the nips for a few years to see if it helps reduce the number of intoxicated motorists.
Betsy Fitzgerald, another commissioner, said she was concerned about the difficulty of reversing policies.
More than that, though, she said regulators should learn from the history of Prohibition, when the nation made alcohol illegal and found itself battling an array of problems rooted in continuing demand for it.
“We couldn’t legislate morality back then and I don’t think we should do it now,” Fitzgerald said.
Gregory Mineo, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, called for the ban because “we’re making it too easy for consumers to violate the law” by drinking while they drive, a clear problem with nips given that so many empties line Maine’s roadways.
But Mark Brown, president of Sazerac Co., which owns the Lewiston bottling plant that makes the best-selling nip brand in Maine, said there is no evidence that the little containers are responsible for an increase in drunken driving the past couple of years.
He said that Mineo’s assertion is “simply false and unsupported by any facts whatsoever.”
Andy Muschinski, the plant manager for Sazerac’s Boston Brands of Maine, said the company has only one business rationale for locating its plant in Lewiston: an exceptional workforce of 124 full-time and more than 30 part-time employees.
He said they were all feeling “serious unease” at the prospect of a ban that might impact their jobs and would likely hit the brakes on a planned $1 million expansion.
The prospect of a ban arose when LePage vowed to seek a de-listing of nips if the Legislature dared to override his veto of the bill imposing a nickel deposit on nips starting in 2019. Lawmakers refused to knuckle under to the threat.
Stephen Roop, who owns half a dozen liquor stores, said the proposed ban “just seems to be a vindictive way” for the governor to lash out at his foes. Roop, who said he voted for LePage twice, called the state’s leader “childlike” in his behavior.
“There are jobs at stake here,” Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, said. “Workers shouldn’t lose their jobs because the Legislature and the governor disagree about the correct approach to address a litter problem.”
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said if the commission barred the sale of nips, Maine should take down the “Open for Business” sign at its border.
Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, hailed the commission for making the right decision.
“They considered the evidence, or lack thereof, and came to the only rational conclusion — that banning the sale of 50-milliliter bottles would cause real economic harm to Lewiston workers and their families, not to mention state revenues, while likely doing nothing to curb the real problem of drunken driving,” Libby said.
More than 8.4 million nips were sold last year and the pace of growth in the product hasn’t slowed, officials said.
Cathleen Sullivan, who runs RSVP Discount Beverage in Portland, said the main reason for the explosive growth is that nips are “a great deal.”
Roop said his stores sold $700,000 worth of nips last year — bringing in $84,000 in profits as a consequence.
Sullivan said nips are popular among savvy shoppers who realize they can get more liquor for their dollar with little bottles than with traditional sizes. But they also have fans among those who want to sample new brands or want small quantities for recipes or just want to control the portions they consume.
She suggested perhaps the state could consider raising their price from 99 cents to $1.49 and to do more educational programs related to drinking and driving.
Rep. Susan Austin, R-Gray, said she never would have pursued a deposit on nips bottles if she’d foreseen how the measure would take on “a very, very lively life of its own” after her introduction of the bill.
She said she noticed so many empty nips bottles during her two-mile exercise walks each day that she began collecting them as she went along to bring them to the transfer station. Ultimately, Austin said, she realized they ought to have a deposit like most other bottles in Maine.
So she asked her colleagues to put a 15-cent deposit on the little bottles.
Rep. Martin Grohman, D-Biddeford, said that after hearing from industry and regulators, legislators pared back the deposit to a nickel, which Sazerac said it would absorb rather than increase the price of nips, and delayed the start of the new deposit requirement until 2019 so that new labels could incorporate the wording.
That spirit of compromise is the reason the measure won such widespread support, he said.
But LePage opposed it, initially citing concerns about the cost and later declaring that nips were contributing to drunken driving because they are so easy to chug and chuck out the window of a moving vehicle.
He said, though, he would only seek a ban if the Legislature refused to sustain his veto of the deposit bill — a threat taken seriously enough by Golden, Libby and other lawmakers around Lewiston who feared its impact on the Sazerac operation to cause them to side with the governor on the veto override.
But the override easily won and the proposed ban moved forward, though Mineo said it was the discussion about the issue, not the governor’s edict, that caused him to urge the de-listing of nips.
“We can no longer turn a blind eye” to the connection between nips and drunken driving, said Aaron Chadbourne, LePage’s senior policy adviser. He said banning nips would lead to more sales of larger containers that create less litter and are more difficult for drivers to consume on the road.
Gerry Reid, a former BABCO director who works for Sazerac, said it’s a bizarre policy choice for the state to try to encourage people to buy larger bottles of booze.
Brown said the bottom line is that consumers want the small bottles because the times demand it. He said all sorts of products are selling well with single-used quantities, from coffee to laundry soap.
It is “part of a broad consumer trend,” Brown said, and one that encourages drinking in moderation.
Nips, he said, “are the most socially responsible” products out there for spirits.