The Universal Notebook: The nuisance of ‘nips’

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When I drove into the drug store parking lot the other day I found myself parked in a litter of little plastic liquor bottles.

I mentioned this to an employee who told me they had someone who picked up the empty “nips” once or twice a day, but she dutifully grabbed a dustpan and brush and went outside and swept up 16 of the minis.

To save her the trouble, the state Legislature is currently considering LD 56, one of the simplest bills before the 128th Legislature. It calls for crossing out the words “of greater than 50 milliliters” in the statutory sentence, “For wine and spirits containers of greater than 50 milliliters, the refund value may not be less than 15¢” in Maine’s returnable container law. That five-word phrase would place a deposit on nips, giving folks an incentive to pick up the little plastic bottles that litter the parking lots and roadsides.

At a Feb. 1 hearing on the bill, Gregory Mineo, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, reported that Maine sold 8.4 million nips in fiscal year 2016 and expected to sell 12 million in fiscal 2017. Then he made an amazing statement: “This product size is growing predominantly due to one product: Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey (sic).”

Mineo meant Fireball Cinnamon Whisky (no “e” as Canadians spell it), a blended Canadian whisky flavored with cinnamon, bottled in Lewiston, and popular at the low end of the liquor market. All 16 nips the drug store clerk swept up around my car were Fireball bottles.

Have you ever taken a swig of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky? The spirit’s slogan is “Tastes like heaven, burns like hell,” but it should be “Smells like candy, tastes like mouthwash.” Fireball is to whisky what Natural Ice is to beer – cheap and sweet.

LD 56 is sponsored by Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, with nine Democratic and four Republican co-sponsors. The LePage administration is against it, as they are just about anything that makes good sense. (Note: Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill to prohibit life insurance companies from considering whether someone is an organ donor when setting rates was overridden last week 146-0. When you’re wrong, governor, you are completely wrong.)

Mineo testified that it might cost as much as $1 million to affix deposit stickers to nips, which come 120 to a case. Mark Bergeron of the DEP’s Bureau of Land Resources testified that a deposit on nips would be a burden on redemption centers and on the state. And Jay Hibbard of the Distilled Spirits Council argued that consumers must have nips because they would be reluctant to try new liquors if they had to buy pints or fifths without tasting them first; he called LD 56 “costly and anti-business.”

“Sensible and pro-environment” seems more like it.

LD 56 is really just a mini-expansion of the Maine bottle bill, which was a Republican initiative back in the day when Republicans still cared about the public interest. Former Republican state Sen. Horace Hildreth Jr. announced plans for a deposit on bottles and cans back in January 1971. Rep. David Ault, R-Wayne, sponsored that bill, which would have been the first bottle bill in the nation, but it failed in both 1971 and 1973. Then, in 1976, the bottle bill sponsored by Rep. John McKernan, R-Bangor, and lobbied for by attorney Angus King, was sent to referendum and passed easily.

The bottle bill did not go into effect until 1978, after it cleared challenges by opponents who argued that it would put stores out of business. Instead, the bottle bill cleaned up Maine’s roadsides and created a redemption business.

Maine’s new nip problem is in part a function of the questionable way Fireball is marketed. Most commodities are more expensive when sold in smaller pre-packed amounts, but Fireball is actually cheaper to buy as a nip (99 cents for 50 ml, or $14.85 for 750 ml) than it is as a fifth ($17 for 750 ml). When you see nips lined up behind store counters they are essentially pandering to folks who don’t have the money to buy a fifth at a time.

Maybe if they carried a 15-cent deposit, Fireball fans could just pick up enough empties to buy their next nip.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, tried to ban nips in order to reduce litter a few years ago, but a judge ruled that a city couldn’t prohibit something the state allows. So my solution would be for Maine to simply outlaw the sale of nips altogether as the environmental and social nuisance they are.

In the meantime, the Legislature should pass LD 56.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.