They’re tiny, cheap, and littered across Boston streets and parks. Now, the City Council is discussing a potential ban of the sale of miniature bottles of alcohol — often called “nips” — in the city, following similar actions in nearby communities such as Newton and Chelsea.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who sponsored the proposal and Monday’s hearing on the ban, said that the sale of alcohol bottles of 100 milliliters or less “can have detrimental impacts on the health and well-being of Boston residents and neighborhoods.”
Arroyo’s proposal asserts that such a move could reduce public intoxication and alcohol-related ambulance responses. On Monday, the councilor from Hyde Park framed the small plastic bottles as posing both littering and public health problems.
“I think there’s a real public nuisance,” he said.
Specifically, he points to Chelsea, a small, working-class city just north of Boston, where EMTs with Cataldo Ambulance Service responded to 742 alcohol-related calls in 2017. That number dipped to 556 in 2018 when the ban was in place for about half of the year, according to Arroyo’s order.
Other US cities have banned the sale of the miniature bottles, including Chicago and Albuquerque, as well as other Massachusetts communities including Falmouth, Mashpee, and Wareham. Banning the mini bottles could help address “health-related inequities caused by alcohol abuse,” while also “freeing up public health resources for non-alcohol related hospitalizations,” Arroyo said in his order.
In his proposal, the councilor cited federal health authorities, who found in 2021 that excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths in the United States annually.
And during Monday’s hearing, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, ticked off public health problems caused by alcohol locally. In 2021, more than 16,800 Boston residents had hospital visits related to alcohol use. The following year, Boston EMS logged nearly 8,000 interactions related to alcohol abuse, up about 100 from the previous year, she said.
“There is a role for regulation,” she told the councilors.
Additionally, there are environmental problems posed by the bottles, Arroyo and others argue. Plastics that are used to make the bottles are not biodegradable and are often not recycled because they fall into designated glass piles with no way to sort them out, the order said. According to Arroyo, volunteers working to reduce litter in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood collected 10,000 nips in less than two months.
“We have seen the proliferation of these singles,” Arroyo said during Monday’s hearing.
The Boston Licensing Board has the power to impose a condition that no mini bottles or single containers of beer be sold by a liquor store when granting the store’s license, which Arroyo says it has done at least 70 times in the city.
The board also has the power to institute a citywide ban of the bottles on its own, according to Arroyo. And he has said he plans on sponsoring a resolution on the matter that the council could vote on at a later date.
During Monday’s hearing, Council President Ed Flynn said, “I’m here to listen, to learn from both sides.”
He also released a statement on Monday, saying the colloquial use of the word “nip” to describe the small bottles of booze should be avoided since it is also used “as a slur against a person of Japanese descent.”
“I ask that we refer to these alcohol types as ‘miniature alcohol bottles,’ or ‘singles’ instead,” he said. “At a time when there are increasing levels of anti-AAPI hate, it is even more critical that we ensure our words are not used for harm and discrimination. Words matter, and they should never be used to add to the flames of racism, sexism, and division.”
Councilor Michael Flaherty said he had initial concerns about the effect on small businesses and possible unintended consequences of forcing consumers with alcohol problems to buy bigger bottles.
“This obviously will have major impacts,” Flaherty said.
Kathleen Joyce, chairwoman of the Boston Licensing Board, said the board already asks liquor stores that are recipients of any new license or license transfer to voluntarily agree not to sell miniature alcohol bottles. She said a citywide ban proposal would likely involve her board holding a public hearing about such a move and having a comment period for the initiative. She acknowledged that there could be legal challenges to such a ban.
Councilor Brian Worrell, who chaired the council’s committee on small business and professional licensure hearing on Monday, said the discussion was “just the start of the initial conversation” and emphasized that the council would not be voting on the matter this week.
Steven Rubin, owner of Huntington Wine & Spirits, testified that a ban on miniature alcohol bottles could exacerbate an individual’s drinking problems, prompting a consumer to purchase a large size bottle of booze. He was adamant that a citywide ban would “generate no measurable impacts on systemic littering or public intoxication,” but it would harm, and possibly ruin small businesses in the city.
“These businesses are highly stressed as it is,” he told the councilors during the hearing.
But officials from Chelsea and Newton, where such bans already exist, extolled the advantages of such a ban. Officials from Chelsea said no liquor store has closed since the city’s ban went into effect and that licenses for liquor stores still remain a valuable commodity there.
Chelsea Police Chief Keith Houghton said the ban was a “game changer” that saw quality of life in his community’s core improve, including a reduction in litter and public drunkenness. The impact, he said, was immediate.
“It was really almost overnight,” he said.