Arroyo wants to ban sale of ‘nips’ in Boston
City councilor calls small liquor bottles a public health hazard and litter blight
IT COULD BE the shot ban heard ‘round the state.
Fed up with thousands of tiny booze bottles littering his district, and concerned about the public health impact of a product that seems tailor-made to feed alcohol addiction, Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo is calling for a hearing to consider a ban on the sale of “nips” in retail liquor stores in the city.
Sale of the small 50- and 100-milliliter containers of hard liquor has long been a source of neighborhood ire in urban communities, where they are often the bottle of choice for homeless people and those drinking on street corners and in public parks. Since 2018, five Massachusetts communities have banned nip sales. But a no-nip proposal in the state’s largest city will reverberate loudly, elevating the stakes of the debate and attention it is likely to generate.
Arroyo said there is a “two-pronged” argument for a ban, citing evidence that it has been “directly related to better health outcomes” in Chelsea, the first Massachusetts community to impose a ban, and has had a “an almost immediate” impact on litter in the densely-packed city of 40,000 residents just north of Boston.
Along with Chelsea, nip bans have been adopted in Falmouth, Mashpee, Newton, and Wareham.
In Chelsea, which adopted a ban on retail sale of nips in 2018, the move has been “a game-changer,” said Keith Houghton, the city’s police chief.
Following adoption of the ban, calls for ambulance and firefighter response to alcohol-related medical emergencies in Chelsea fell by more than half. Houghton said the city has long had a serious issue with homeless alcoholics congregating in public places. The nip ban has not solved it, but the problem has been “seriously reduced,” said Houghton, who was a police captain when the ban was crafted and served as the department’s liaison to the city licensing commission.
“It’s hard to not notice the difference on the streets,” said Roy Avellenada, a former Chelsea city councilor who helped lead the push for the ban. Avellenada and Houghton said nips that were once regularly strewn throughout downtown Chelsea and in many parks have all but disappeared.
“The parks are clean” and people are “not loitering on benches” downtown, said Hougthton.
Chelsea initially banned the sale of 50-milliliter liquor bottles, but then expanded the new rule to include 100-milliliter containers.
Robert Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, said the bans do little to tackle alcohol addiction issues, as people simply find ways to buy pints and larger containers. As for the litter problem, Mellion’s organization favors legislation that has been filed for several years to expand the state’s bottle bill to include nips.
Just how big a problem are discarded nips? In one area of Arroyo’s Hyde Park-based district, volunteers with a local neighborhood beautification organization picked up more than 10,000 of the miniature liquor bottles in a period of less than two months.
Including nips in the state’s bottle bill would bring a new – and costly – challenge to recycling efforts, as the existing machines used to recycle plastic containers can’t process the tiny bottles.
Mellion said the Chelsea ban hasn’t necessarily led to less alcohol abuse, it’s only shifted the location where it occurs. He said wholesale liquor sale data show that a decrease in overall sales in Chelsea has been accompanied by increases in neighboring East Boston and Everett.
No Chelsea liquor stores have closed as a result of the ban. But Mellion said the city licensing rule has been hard on Chelsea liquor outlets, with nip sales accounting for as much as 20 percent of all sales at some of them. “A lot of stores rely on those sales,” he said.
Arroyo plans to introduce an order at this week’s council meeting calling for a hearing at which he wants to hear from officials from the Boston Public Health Commission and the Licensing Board that oversees liquor sales on the potential benefits of a nip ban.
A spokesman for Mayor Michelle Wu was non-committal, saying “we are reviewing the language in the hearing order and look forward to the hearing.”
Arroyo said neighborhood residents already push the Licensing Board to ban nip sales as a condition of license transfers or when a store seeks approval to expand.
That kind of piecemeal approach “is like whack-a-mole,” said Avellenada, the former Chelsea city councilor. “You’re not solving the issue, you’re shifting where they can go buy them.”
Mellion said the liquor store owners association will oppose any effort to stop all nip sales in Boston. “A ban in Boston is definitely going to have impacts all across the state,” he said.Avellenada thinks the industry will mount an all-out effort to block a nip ban in the state’s capital city.
“Boston is the 800-pound gorilla,” he said. “As Boston goes, maybe the rest of Massachusetts will go.”