CHELSEA — This city wants to take a bite out of its public drinking problem. Well, a few nips, anyway. And the liquor industry is fighting back.
Chelsea this year became the first municipality in Massachusetts to ban the sale of the ubiquitous little liquor bottles, blaming them for contributing to public drunkenness in the downtown area it has worked hard to revive.
In pulling nips from store shelves last March, the city took a step that many others have considered without any real success, given the opposition from the package store industry.
Not surprisingly, the clampdown has sparked a backlash from Chelsea’s liquor stores, which have appealed the ban to the state, arguing it was approved without any evidence the stores themselves have done anything wrong.
Residents, meanwhile, are divided over whether banning nips hurts low-income people or helps the city combat litter and street harassment.
“I think it’s wrong,” said Eustice James, 38, who works part time at Jack’s Men’s Shop, a clothing store on Broadway, the city’s main drag lined with Latin restaurants, bakeries, bodegas, and, yes, liquor stores. James said he enjoys the occasional nip on his days off, and appreciates that he can buy a single serving of vodka or rum for less than $5.
“If you don’t have enough money to get a full bottle or an expensive bottle, a nip you drink in moderation,” he said. “A nip helps you loosen up.”
Harry Patel, co-owner of Heller’s Liquor Mart across the street, said the ban has led to a 10 percent drop in sales, about equal to a month’s utility bill or a week’s pay for one of his clerks.
“That means a lot,” he said. “Nips were one of our most popular items.”
But city officials said nips encourage people to drink on the street and in parks, a problem they say has been overlooked given the focus on the more deadly opioid crisis.
Chelsea police Captain Keith Houghton said the city responded to 171 calls for opioid overdoses last year, compared to 1,000 calls for alcohol-related problems, which resulted in 238 people being taken into custody by police and 781 being hospitalized. Officers, he said, noted that many of the people who had passed out on the street or were causing a nuisance had bought nips or quarter pints of alcohol.
“That just alarmed us,” he said. “It’s alarming that we have seven times more alcohol-related issues than opioid issues.”
In March, the city Licensing Board banned the sale of 50 ml liquor bottles, the smallest nips, which are frequently sold on the counter at liquor stores or in hotel minibars and on airplanes. In August, the board extended the ban to palm-sized 100 ml bottles and considered broadening it further to flask-sized bottles of 250 ml, said City Solicitor Cheryl Watson Fisher.
The escalation prompted nine local liquor stores to file an appeal with the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which plans to hear arguments in the case next Thursday.
The liquor stores contend the licensing board lacked the legal authority to ban the bottles and unfairly blamed them for public drinking.
“There was no evidence that any individual package stores did anything to justify the ban on nips at their stores,” said Louis Cassis, a Quincy attorney who is representing the stores and is president of the Wine & Spirit Wholesalers of Massachusetts.
“The evidence in Chelsea is that in general there’s litter and in general there’s intoxication,” Cassis said. “There was no evidence linking it to any particular package store.”
Other states and communities that have tried to curb nips have backed off amid opposition from the liquor industry.
Last year, Governor Paul LePage of Maine tried to ban the sales of nips, after legislators slapped a nickel deposit on the bottles. But Maine’s liquor commission rejected the ban, arguing it would cost jobs and hamper consumer choice.
In Massachusetts, the Everett Licensing Board vowed to ban nips last year, but was warned it lacked the legal authority to do so without a city ordinance, said Chairman Philip Antonelli.
The Winthrop Licensing Commission approved a ban last month, only to rescind it weeks later after three liquor stores challenged its legality.
Robert Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Store Association, said the bans are mostly fueled by growing frustration with litter. But nips are “not even in the top five” most frequently discarded items, he said, contending cigarette butts, food wrappers, and water and sports drink bottles are more often tossed.
“It’s our opinion that Massachusetts has a litter problem, not necessarily a portion-control-sizing problem,” he said, using the industry term for nips. “It’s a general litter problem in the state that has to be addressed.”
Statewide efforts to prevent the littering of nips have been bottled up at the State House.
State Representative Randy Hunt, a Sandwich Republican, filed legislation this year to place a nickel deposit on nip bottles. But he said House speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, wouldn’t bring the bill to the floor because he considered it a tax. A DeLeo spokeswoman, asked for comment, noted only that the bill remains in committee.
The lack of progress has been frustrating for Hunt, who had challenged his colleagues to spend 90 seconds collecting two nip bottles in their districts, and return them to him in bags he labeled with their names. About 20 colleagues actually took him up on the challenge.
“I haven’t heard any of my colleagues tell me they weren’t able to spot two of these in 90 seconds, and I think that really tells me they’re everywhere,” Hunt said.
In Chelsea, some business owners applauded the ban, calling it a welcome move to make downtown more attractive to shoppers.
“I think it’s perfect not to sell them anymore,” said Fatima Ortiz, the owner of Amazonia Jeans, who said she was accustomed to picking up five or six nip bottles outside her shop every morning, and calling the police on occasion to clear intoxicated people from the doorway. Now, she said, there’s “nothing like that in the street.”