CHELSEA’S BAN on “nip” liquor bottles – the only one of its kind in the state — appears to be having the desired effect.

In the year since the city banned sale of the tiny 50-ml bottles of hard liquor, public drunkenness has diminished, alcohol-related ambulance responses are way down, and there has been a reduction in the number of people taken into protective custody for alcohol intoxication.

Merchants and local officials also say the litter caused by discarded nip bottles has largely disappeared. A two-mile walk through downtown Chelsea on on a recent weekday uncovered no nip bottles and no larger empty alcohol containers on the ground.

“It’s been over a year since that ban was put in place and the results are in – the impact of the ban is overwhelmingly positive,” said Chelsea City Councilor Roy Avellaneda, who spearheaded the effort last year. “Just look at the numbers.”

But package store owners, concerned about the loss of revenue from the sale of the tiny liquor bottles, say the numbers being cited by Avellaneda are misleading, and that the ban is only pushing problems elsewhere. Eager to stop the spread of nip bans, liquor retailers are snuffing out efforts in other communities to try what Chelsea has done and they are also trying to overturn the Chelsea experiment.

“Look, this is an item that sells in Chelsea,” said Robert Mellion, executive director and general counsel for the state’s Package Store Association. He said the ban has unfairly hurt businesses, with 50- and 100-milliliter nips accounting for as much as 10 percent of sales at Chelsea liquor stores.

Jan. 2019
Liquor “nips,” the sale of which Chelsea banned last year, littered near a Dorchester liquor store.

The debate over miniature liquor bottles seems like a fairly small municipal squabble, but it’s loaded with lots of difficult questions about social disorder, addiction, and efforts by poorer communities like Chelsea to support vibrant business districts. It’s not anywhere near the challenge of dealing with drug addicts along Boston’s so-called “Methadone Mile,” but people hanging out draining nip bottles and littering the streets with them raises a similar question about how a community should respond. There is concern for the individuals caught up in destructive behavior, but there is also concern about their impact on the general qualify of life in a neighborhood. On top of all that in the debate over nips is the fact that while lots of businesses are hailing the ban for improving downtown Chelsea, liquor store owners say they’re paying the price.

By May 2018, Avellaneda was fed up the alcohol abuse he had been witnessing on Chelsea’s streets since he was a kid walking to school or to his dad’s bakery on Broadway. “You have to go to the point of the source, and we believe part of the problem is the sale of these nips,” he said in June 2018, shortly after the city’s licensing commission banned the sale of 50-milliliter liquor bottles. In August, the commission took another step, banning the sale of 100-milliliter containers.

Enraged liquor store owners missed the five-day time frame to appeal the initial 50-milliliter decision to the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, but were prepared for round two, when nine of them filed a complaint over the ban on 100-milliliter containers. City officials say the state commission lacks jurisdiction to intervene, while the package store owners argue the opposite. In the meantime, the package store owners are complying with what they call a “voluntary ban” on 100-milliliter containers while the commission assesses their case.

Mellion says banning a specific type of container is pointless, and it doesn’t get at the real problem – alcoholism. “If the argument put forward is that the sale of 50- or 100-milliliter bottles is directly connected with alcohol addiction – if that’s true, all you’re doing is driving an individual to purchase a 200-milliliter item,” he said. “It’s a false narrative. If the goal is to end public drinking, the real way is to convince people not to drink, not remove a specific bottle size.” Otherwise, he said, people could just “walk over to Everett” to purchase nips.

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes scoffs at the walk-to-Everett argument. “People don’t walk down the street with 12-packs under their arms and drink. In reality, a lot of these people don’t have a lot of money,” he said.

Kyes said he remembers when officers would check in with men and women sitting across from the police station on benches who grew progressively more despondent and inebriated throughout the day. “Those small bottles could be squirreled away so easily,” he said, remembering nip bottles piling up in the park over the course of hours. “I’d say, hey guys, we gotta’ pick these up, but they’d say, It isn’t mine! It isn’t mine!”

Alcohol-related ambulance responses, which typically trigger police and fire calls as well, have declined dramatically in Chelsea since the advent of the nip ban. According to Cataldo Ambulance Service, which hold the contract for emergency calls in the city, there were 742 alcohol-related responses in 2017, 556 in 2018 (when the nip ban was in place for about half the year), and 127 so far this year as of mid-August.

If the trend continues, Chelsea officials say the city will have a 66 percent drop in alcohol-related ambulance and firefighter responses by the end of the year.

Avellaneda said the numbers in 2017 were way too high. “It was seven times the amount of heroin overdoses that year,” he said. “That number was amazing to me.”

Kyes said the police department has taken only 86 individuals into protective custody for alcohol consumption so far this year, putting the city on track to record a notable decrease from the 222 for all of last year.

Mellion says the decline is more likely the result of a training course for package store owners that was administered by his association in partnership with the city than due to the nip ban. As part of that effort, a “do not sell list” was also created for individuals who had been taken into protective custody in the past.

“Those two actions are likely material to an observable reduction, because people still can buy the next size up from the voluntary ban,” Mellion said.

Kyes said some package stores were better than others in refusing to sell liquor to people on the do-not-sell list. One package store, however, was shut down from May to August last year for continuing to sell nips after the ban was enacted, and selling to people on the do-not-sell list.

Steve Vaccaro, the owner of The Gold Mine jewelry store, says the nip ban has brought about a noticeable improvement in downtown Chelsea. He said he used to walk the store’s dog outside, but then stopped when the park across the street was “crawling with those bottles.”

Gold Mine Jewelry Store owner Steve Vaccaro chats with Chelsea City Councilor Roy Avellaneda. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

Vaccaro described men working night jobs in the area spending their days drinking nips out front during the day, and urinating against a nearby restaurant’s wall. “Decent guys with drinking problems,” he said. “I don’t know where they’ve gone now, but they’re not out front anymore.”

Kim Le, owner of the International Nail Salon on Broadway, Chelsea’s main thoroughfare – an area that was once ground zero for many intoxication calls — said the ban has changed the neighborhood.  “It’s much safer, much better,” she said.

While communities across Massachusetts have dabbled with the idea of banning nips, most have put off any action while the legal fight in Chelsea continues. In its January 2019 newsletter, the package store association boasted about rescinding or preventing nip bans in Randolph, Everett, Fitchburg, Winthrop, and Nantucket.

Mellion said the package stores had to appeal the Chelsea Licensing Commission’s decision to the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission because due process was not provided. He also disputes the contention that the the package stores did not file a timely appeal of the initial ban on 50-ml nips.

Ralph Sacramone, the executive director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, says that a decision in the Chelsea case is “pending,” but he offered no timeframe for a ruling.

Tom Ambrosino, Chelsea’s city manager, doesn’t expect the issue to go away any time soon. “I suspect whichever side loses [at the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission], whether it’s the city or the package stores, it will be appealed to the court system,” he said. “In the meantime, the city will enforce the nip ban until some court tells us we can’t do it. I haven’t seen an injunction yet.”