Drunken-driving convictions are on the rise in Maine at the same time sales of miniature liquor bottles are skyrocketing, but the LePage administration and a major distiller disagree about whether the so-called nips are responsible for the increase in OUIs.

The issue is central to a debate about banning the sale of nips in Maine, which could affect jobs at a Lewiston bottling plant and cost the state tens of millions of dollars in revenue in years to come.

Lawmakers last month overrode the governor’s veto of a bill that requires retailers to collect a 5-cent deposit on every 50-milliliter bottle beginning in 2019. Supporters argued that adding nips to Maine’s “bottle bill” would help reduce roadside litter.

LePage originally opposed the bill because he said it would hurt businesses and state finances, and he now argues it does not do enough to discourage drivers from drinking behind the wheel. He has asked the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations to formally begin the process of “delisting,” or removing, nips in Maine.

In June, the bureau’s director filed a recommendation in support of delisting with the State Liquor and Lottery Commission, drawing a connection between the small liquor bottles and drunken driving. The number of convictions for operating under the influence decreased 38 percent from 2006 to 2014, but convictions have risen in the past two years, according to the state. At the same time, sales of nips have been growing by as much as 40 percent annually.

That combination of trends, along with complaints about empty bottles on roadsides, proves nips are enabling people to drink and drive, the administration says.

Sazerac Co., which makes Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, operates a bottling and finishing plant in Lewiston. In a July 3 filing with the liquor commission, an attorney for Sazerac said more evidence is needed to link nips and drinking behind the wheel.

“The (beverages and lottery) bureau’s rush to judgment tells us nothing about whether there is a correlation between the sale of (50-milliliter) spirits and the increase in OUI convictions, and its failure to procure any support for its conclusion from law enforcement is telling,” the filing reads.

SEEKING CORRELATION IN NUMBERS

Nips sales in Maine topped 8 million bottles in 2016. The most popular brand was Fireball, which represented more than 40 percent of all nips sales in Maine in the last fiscal year. Nips account for only 6.6 percent of the beverages and lottery bureau’s profits from spirits in the past year, but sales of the 50-milliliter bottlers are growing at a faster pace than any other liquor product.

However, legislators said complaints about the number of small liquor bottles along roadsides led to the passage of L.D. 56, which established the nickel deposit.

In his veto letter, LePage said the bill does not address the issue of people drinking nips while driving and then tossing them out the car window.

“Absent increased penalties, which this bill failed to impose, an alternative approach is to discontinue the sale of (50-milliliter) bottles containing alcohol altogether,” LePage wrote. “If this bill passes, I have directed the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations to work with the Liquor and Lottery Commission to delist these products for sale in Maine.”

Gregory Mineo, the bureau’s director, filed his recommendation to that effect with the commission June 23.

Mineo said convictions for liquor OUIs had been declining annually – from 5,548 convictions in 2006 to 3,462 in 2014. However, those numbers have trended upward since then. There were 3,539 convictions in 2015 and 3,735 in 2016 – roughly an 8 percent increase over two years.

At the same time, nips sales have been rising steadily. In 2007, the number of 50-milliliter bottles sold statewide was 511,331. In 2014, the year before liquor OUI convictions began to increase again, 3.5 million nips were sold. That number grew to 5.5 million in 2015 and 8.4 million in 2016, representing a 142 percent jump over two years. This year, sales are expected to reach 12 million.

“It is self-evident that discarded containers along roadsides come from occupants of vehicles,” Mineo wrote in the filing. “Consequently, the increasing multitudes of discarded (50-milliliter) spirits containers are not just unsightly litter; they are concrete evidence of widespread drinking while driving and a strong indicator that the roadways of Maine are becoming increasingly more dangerous.”

TRYING TO SHOOT HOLES IN THEORY

Sazerac’s response called the bureau’s argument “politically motivated” and “anecdotal and speculative.”

The company argued that the LePage administration has not provided any evidence specifically linking the 50-milliliter bottles to drunken driving. The filing cited testimony from legislators about other alcohol containers and trash on roadsides, and said the newly passed 5-cent deposit will address the issue of littering. Sazerac also said the increase in OUI convictions would be more dramatic if it was tied to the large spike in nips sales in Maine.

One 50-milliliter bottle of Fireball contains less than a standard drink, the company said, and a 100-pound woman would likely have a blood-alcohol content of less than 0.05 percent after consuming one nip. The legal limit is 0.08 percent.

“The bureau has not provided any evidence to support the theory that the only time a consumer of alcohol with a propensity to break the law will drink and drive is when a (50-milliliter) bottle is available to him or her,” the filing reads. “No evidence has been put forth that connects even one specific OUI conviction to the consumption of (50-milliliter) spirits.)”

The Lewiston bottling and finishing plant employs 130 people. In a mid-May letter sent to a legislative leader, Sazerac CEO Mark Brown warned that delisting would have a “drastic impact on our company and our employees.” The company reiterated that statement in its filing, saying jobs and a $1 million upgrade at the Lewiston plant would be jeopardized by a ban on nips sales in Maine.

MILLIONS IN REVENUE AT STAKE

The bureau has predicted that incorporating nips into the bottle-deposit bill would cost more than $3.2 million for new equipment, staffing and redemption center handling costs through June 30, 2020. However, data supplied by the bureau to liquor commission members also shows the state earned nearly $4.1 million in profit from nips during the 52-week period that ended May 27, a 44 percent increase over the previous year. Sazerac also has estimated that Maine could lose up to $150 million in profits over the next 13 years without its 50-milliliter products.

Maine State Police and the governor’s office did not respond to messages requesting comment Wednesday.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, co-chairs the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee and negotiated with Sazerac on the deposit bill. He said roadside litter includes all manner of alcohol bottles, and the state shouldn’t target one product over another. State police could ramp up drunken-driving enforcement near stores that sell nips as a more effective strategy, he suggested.

“There is an OUI problem in the state of Maine, but don’t blame it on the nips,” Saviello said. “It’s a lot more than the nips.”

The five-member liquor commission will hear public feedback during its meeting next Tuesday in Augusta.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Twitter: megan_e_doyle