ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Halloween Headaches in Salem, Mass.: Traffic. Crowds. Tiny Liquor Bottles?
Miniature bottles of alcohol known as “nips” litter gardens, parks and playgrounds, prompting the Witch City to propose a ban.
WHY WE’RE HERE
We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. Halloween has become part of the identity of Salem, Mass., which attracts huge crowds and results in a lot of litter.
By Jenna Russell
Photographs by Kieran Kesner
Oct. 29, 2023
The list of public nuisances in Salem., Mass., in high Halloween season is long and weird: Rowdy crowds imperiling 17th-century gravestones. Unlicensed fortune tellers. Skirmishes over parking spaces at Gallows Hill or the Museum of Torture.
This October, though, some city leaders and long-suffering residents have risen up against another scourge in Salem — the diminutive bottles of alcohol informally known as “nips.”
Innocent as they may appear, with their pocket-size proportions and frequently fruity flavors, the single-serving, 50-milliliter bottles have been pilloried and placed on trial in Massachusetts in recent years as they have piled up, drained and discarded, in gardens, parks and playgrounds. Weary of the crunchy plastic carpet underfoot — and wary of their appeal to teens and closet drinkers — a growing roster of cities and towns is moving to ban nips altogether.
For most, including Salem, reducing litter is the main objective. But the campaigns cannot help but carry a whiff of the region’s Puritanical origins. Some Salem residents said banning nips seems extreme, almost like a throwback to the intolerant era that spawned the city’s most shameful history.
Residents acknowledged that litter is a problem, especially in October, when nearly one million Halloween celebrants visit the city — many of them dressed in pointed hats and spider web leggings — for the 40-year-old “Haunted Happenings” festival. The monthlong event, featuring twilight ghost tours, haunted pub crawls and witch trial re-enactments, triggers traffic gridlock so fearsome that residents of neighboring towns steer clear of Salem as early as mid-September.
In this chaotic context, some locals said, a ban on nips seems like a drop in the bucket.
“The problem is, people are just going to buy a bigger bottle,” said Brian Carter, a 30-year resident of Salem who paused his evening walk to watch a couple engineer a 12-foot skeleton into place outside a house on Derby Street.
Because nips can be easily concealed, though, they pose an invisible threat to bartenders and bar owners who bear legal responsibility for patrons’ alcohol intake, said Diane Wolf, a longtime Salem bar owner who backs the proposed ban.
“We find them in the trash in the bathrooms,” she said, evidence that some customers are secretly supplementing their “official” alcohol intake. “Sometimes we’re like, ‘How did that person go from zero to 60 in a minute?”
Ms. Wolf — wearing a black T-shirt with the slogan “Salem Is Not A Theme Park” — said she was no teetotaler, and sometimes stuffs stockings with nips at Christmas. But she was taken aback recently by an online ad for a hair scrunchie with a secret zip pocket touted as the perfect place to stash a nip.
Ty Hapworth, a city councilor who lives near the Salem Witch Museum and plucks empty nip bottles from his garden almost daily, said he expected liquor store owners to fight the ban.
Deep Patel, a manager at Loring Liquors, near Salem State University, said he will be among them.
“It would definitely hurt us,” he said, thumping his chest with his fist in an expression of injury. “It’s probably 25 percent of our business that we would lose to neighboring towns — but people will bring the nips back and dump the bottles here. So it’s not solving the problem.”
Mr. Patel did a brisk business as he spoke to a reporter, making four sales in 10 minutes on a balmy Monday evening. Two of his four customers bought nips, including a self-described single mother who said she liked the low-priced minis because “a little bit of drink can go a long way.”
Not all nips are cheap; high-end options exceed $20 apiece. But the most popular cost about $1, including the ubiquitous, cinnamon-flavored Fireball (“tastes like heaven, burns like hell,” according to its slogan). At the Bunghole, a closet-size liquor store on Salem’s Derby Street, seasonal stock includes an “adult trick or treat” bag of 15 Fireball nips.
The abundance inspired a Facebook page, “Fireballs of Salem,” where residents document and lament the refuse.
Seemingly derived from the old German word nipperkin, meaning a small portion, nips go by other names as well. “My partner and I call them “frat tracks” — follow the trail of Fireball nips to find the local frat house,” wrote one Reddit user from Salem.
David H. Jernigan, a Boston University professor of health law and policy, has noticed the uprising against nips and sees some logic in it, but he cautioned that rigorous research on the impact of the public health conditionary is lacking.
“Taxes on alcohol are very well studied — we know they save lives,” he said. “But we don’t have that evidence for banning nips.”
Since Chelsea, a small city north of Boston, became the first place in Massachusetts to ban the sale of nips in 2018 — a step the city said reduced alcohol-related hospital admissions — the movement has spread. The islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard followed suit, and no-nip towns are multiplying on Cape Cod.
A ban in New Bedford, the one-time whaling port, set to take effect Nov. 1, was postponed last week under pressure from owners of the city’s liquor stores, who said they stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual sales.
Town meeting voters in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, rejected a ban last month after heated debate, but victorious liquor store owners extended an olive branch, offering to add a 5-cent deposit to every nip sale, and donate the funds to the town to help with recycling.
Robert Mellion, president of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, thinks a 5-cent deposit on nips statewide would be a better way to address the litter problem, and has lobbied legislators for the change repeatedly without success, he said.
Even when empties are returned, however, disposing of nips is complicated: The bottles are too small to be effectively recycled, according to the state, which recommends throwing them away instead.
Attempts to pass statewide bans on nips in Maine and Rhode Island failed in recent years. Elsewhere in the country, Utah and New Mexico have enacted bans on most nip sales, as the city of Chicago did 20 years ago.
In Salem, some residents imagine eco-friendly substitutes for the wee plastic containers. A Reddit user jokingly proposed “a refillable flask program” in the Witch City, with “booze on tap in liquor stores.”
William Legault, a former city councilor who tends bar at the Columbus Society Lounge, sees bigger problems. “If you want to do something about litter in Salem, ban cigarettes,” he said. “See how well that goes over.”
Mr. Carter had another suggestion, one that some Salemites dream of every fall.
“How about ban the Haunted Happenings,” he said, “and don’t bring all the people here?”
Julie Bosman contributed reporting.