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Nipping litter in the bud

Boston has already taken steps to phase out the mini bottles of alcohol that are preferred by teens, litterbugs, and drunk drivers. Now it should take the policy citywide.

Steven Rubin, owner of Huntington Wine and Liquor, shows some of the mini bottles of alcohol for sale at his store April 5 in Boston. Rubin, whose family has owned the store since 1970, estimates that the bottles account for up to 15 percent of his sales. But he might be on the verge of losing those sales. Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo has proposed banning city liquor stores from selling the small bottles, which he says would address both alcohol abuse and excessive litter.Mark Pratt/Associated Press

When Chelsea became the first Massachusetts municipality to ban the sale of miniature bottles of alcohol in 2018, liquor store owners called it a bad policy that would harm businesses and punish those who prefer small-sized liquor products. Worse: The move, which was meant to tackle public drinking and littering, would push customers to buy bigger bottles, thus increasing the chance of more alcohol-related incidents.

But none of those worst-case scenarios seem to have played out. On the contrary — Chelsea got cleaner and alcohol-related emergency calls decreased almost 75 percent nearly two years after the ban went into effect, according to Chelsea city officials. No package stores shut down after the ban.


Since then, other cities and towns have followed Chelsea’s lead in banning the troublesome tiny bottles, commonly known as “nips”: Newton, Falmouth, Wareham, Nantucket, Mashpee, and Martha’s Vineyard.

Boston should be next. There are many compelling arguments for the ban — and it wouldn’t be a radical change since the city already enforces a limited, informal version of a nips ban.

At a hearing in early April to discuss the small containers convened by city councilor Ricardo Arroyo, Boston Licensing Board chairwoman Kathleen Joyce said that since she became the head of the agency in October 2018, under then-Mayor Marty Walsh, “any new license that comes before me for a package store I ask if they would voluntarily agree to a condition of not selling singles or miniature bottles” of alcohol.

In an interview with the editorial board last week, Walsh said his administration pursued the change because community leaders were complaining about people hanging around liquor stores and buying nips. “It was a quality of life issue, but it’s also a public safety issue,” Walsh said.


The current policy applies to any new package store license or any transfer of such license, Joyce said at the hearing. In fact, it just happened last week: On Thursday, the board issued a license for a liquor store to open inside South Station, and the business agreed to not sell nips, a condition that the board will write into the license.

City spokesperson Ricardo Patrón said that the license restrictions cover about 57 package stores. It would ultimately take a regulation from the licensing board to implement a citywide ban on nips in Boston, he said. It would be the logical next step.

Data from the Boston Public Health Commission cited at the hearing show there were more than 16,800 Boston residents in 2021 who visited a hospital due to alcohol use. The next year, Boston EMS had almost 8,000 interactions with residents related to alcohol use.

Arroyo called the single servings, which typically contain 100 milliliters or less of alcohol, a public nuisance. The small containers are often not recycled because waste separation machines are not set up for them; they’re too small to be captured and can jam the equipment.

“We have seen a proliferation of these singles on the streets, in parks,” Arroyo said at the hearing. He noted that a neighborhood association in Hyde Park collected 10,000 miniature bottles in less than two months. At the hearing, Chelsea Police Chief Keith Houghton said the ban was a “game changer” and its impact in the city was seen “almost overnight.” He said Chelsea has seen 20 percent fewer cases where authorities have to put an intoxicated person in protective custody than in 2018.


Not surprisingly, Boston liquor stores oppose the ban. Robert Mellion, the executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, said a ban would do nothing to address litter and public intoxication. But that argument contradicts the evidence from Chelsea’s five-year-old ban. Mellion said in a statement, “we are committed to expanding the bottle bill (which requires a refundable deposit on bottle purchases) … to include small liquor bottles.” Recycling companies can recalibrate the machines or change them out, he said, so they can accept and sort the tiny containers.

Sure, in an ideal world the Legislature would expand the bottle bill. But Massachusetts residents overwhelmingly rejected a referendum in 2014 that would do so. And it’s doubtful that the state is going to act anytime soon, as Newton City Councilor Emily Norton testified during the hearing: “If we’re going to wait for the state Legislature, I would just say forget it.” Norton said that the ban in Newton, which one liquor store owner supported, prompted no negative reactions when it was approved in 2021.

The benefits of a ban on sales of mini booze bottles outweigh any potential downsides. The tiny bottles are everywhere: They’re typically preferred by drivers who drink because they can be easily concealed and are often simply thrown out the window or disposed of on the street or on people’s front lawns. Plus, they’re often the container of choice among teens precisely because they’re inconspicuous. Liquor stores might be crying wolf now, but experience shows that banning nips won’t cause the sky to fall — and could help make the streets cleaner and safer.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.