AUGUSTA — The State Liquor and Lottery Commission voted 4-1 on Tuesday to reject a proposal by the LePage administration to discontinue the sale of 50-milliliter liquor bottles commonly known as nips.

The commissioners, all appointed by Gov. Paul LePage, were considering the request to take the small bottles of hard alcohol off the shelves after the administration argued that the increasing number of nips found in roadside litter indicates that more people are drinking and driving. LePage was trying to follow through on his threat to delist the 50-milliliter bottles if the Legislature overrode his veto of a bill that aims to combat roadside litter by adding a 5-cent deposit on nips.

The Republican originally opposed the 5-cent deposit on grounds that it would hurt businesses and state finances, but then threatened to remove the increasingly popular 50-milliliter bottles from store shelves amid a dispute with lawmakers over litter and Maine’s “bottle bill.”

Most recently, officials in the state’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations recommended that the state, which controls all alcohol sales in Maine, stop offering nips starting in 2018 because of an increase in operating under the influence convictions in 2015 and 2016 .

After Tuesday’s vote, Gregg Mineo, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, said the agency’s effort to delist the smaller bottles was about two things: making the state’s roads safer and getting rid of “unsightly litter.”

On the line were an estimated 31 jobs at the Lewiston-based bottler Boston Brands, the division of the Sazerac Co. that produces nips in Maine. That includes the state’s most-popular brand, Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, which accounts for 40 percent of nips sales in the state.

PROBLEM: BOTTLES, OR DRINKING HABITS?

Sazerac employs 130 people at its Lewiston plant – formerly White Rock Distillery – where workers finish and bottle Fireball and other spirits. Company officials said about 31 part-time jobs that they were looking to make full-time as part of a $1 million expansion were in jeopardy.

The loss of jobs alone was argument enough for liquor and lottery Commissioner Betsy Fitzgerald, who lives in Washington County. “I just know that from my perspective, which is Washington County, is that we certainly understand the fear of losing employment,” Fitzgerald said as about a dozen workers from the Lewiston plant attended the commission’s meeting at the Augusta Armory. “There’s no place in Maine that can afford to lose 25, 50, 75 jobs or whatever it is, and I am almost persuaded by that alone.”

Fitzgerald said nips bottles also litter roadsides in Washington County, but banning them would likely “do more harm than good.”

The commission voted against the recommendation by the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations after hearing testimony from about a dozen witnesses Tuesday. Witnesses included officials from Sazerac as well as state lawmakers, liquor store owners, business people and Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald.

Macdonald, a retired Lewiston police detective, said drunken driving is a behavior problem that is not related to the size of the bottle of alcohol.

“Banning the sale of nip bottles is not an answer to illegal drinking and driving,” Macdonald said. “People who drink and drive are not going to stop doing so due to a container change. It is a conscious choice in their behavior that needs changing.”

The state has seen increasing profits from the sale of the smaller-sized bottles and earned about $4 million from those sales in 2016.

Commissioner Larry Davis, who supported the delisting, said he believes that banning nips bottles would save lives and make Maine’s roads safer. He urged his colleagues to at least consider the ban to see if drunken driving decreased as a result.

“Yeah, we make $4 million, but how many people in this room here would spend $4 million to bring back somebody who had died, a loved one, and to me that is the crucial thing I’m going to decide on,” Davis said.

But those arguing against the delisting said that over the past decade, operating OUI convictions in Maine had dramatically decreased.

Commissioner Patricia Rice said OUI data from 2006 through 2016 shows that the highest number of convictions came in 2006 and 2007, when nip sales were at their lowest point during the period. “So I find that attributing the increase in OUIs to an increase in nips sales is not sustainable,” Rice said.

The new deposit on nips bottles will start in January 2019, giving bottlers time to change labels to include the 5-cent deposit.

NIPS DEBATE SPARKS USEFUL DISCUSSION

After Tuesday’s vote, Gregg Mineo, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, said the agency’s effort to delist the smaller bottles was about two things: making the state’s roads safer and getting rid of “unsightly litter.”

Even though the commission disagreed with bureau staff, Mineo said the proposal served as a “catalyst for an important policy discussion.”

“The rapid growth of 50-milliliter spirits, and the corresponding appearance of these discarded products along Maine’s roadways, presents a dilemma that will not be solved by simply placing a deposit sticker on these bottles,” Mineo said in a prepared statement.

State Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, sponsored the law to add the nickel deposit to nips bottles and was pleased with the commission’s vote, but he seemed to agree that a broader policy discussion about drunken driving is in order.

“While this process was largely unnecessary, in my opinion, it has spurred a great conversation about a much larger problem – drinking while driving,” Saviello said in a prepared statement. “Instead of vilifying the container, we need to focus on more effective measures such as educating the public and revisiting the pricing structure of this product. By adding nips to the bottle deposit system, we will demonstrate that business and environmental stewardship can coexist in Maine.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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