Halloween headaches in Salem, Mass.: Traffic. It’s crowded. Small bottles of liquor?

Miniature alcohol bottles known as “nips” litter gardens, parks and playgrounds, prompting the City of Witches to propose a ban.


We explore how America defines itself place by place. Halloween has become part of the identity of Salem, Massachusetts, which draws huge crowds and results in lots of litter.

The list of public nuisances in Salem, Massachusetts, during the Halloween season is long and strange: a rowdy crowd that threatens 17th-century tombstones. Unlicensed fortune tellers. Skirmishes over parking spaces at Gallows Hill or the Museum of Torture.

This October, however, some city leaders and long-suffering residents rose up against another Salem scourge — tiny bottles of alcohol, informally known as “snacks.”

As innocuous as they look, with their pocket-sized proportions and often fruity flavors, the single-serving 50-milliliter bottles have been thwarted and put to the test in Massachusetts in recent years as they pile up, squeeze and toss in gardens. , parks and playgrounds. Tired of the crunchy plastic carpet underfoot — and wary of their appeal to teenagers and closet drinkers — a growing number of cities and towns are moving to ban snacks altogether.

For most, including Salem, litter reduction is the main goal. But the campaigns cannot help but bear a whiff of the region’s Puritan origins. Some Salem residents said the grits ban seems extreme, almost like a return to the intolerant era that spawned the city’s most shameful history.

Residents acknowledged litter is a problem, especially in October, when nearly a million Halloween revelers visit the city – many of them decked out in pointy hats and spider leggings – for the 40th annual Haunted Happenings festival. The monthly event, which includes twilight ghost tours, haunted pubs and witch trial re-enactments, causes traffic jams so terrifying that residents of neighboring towns avoid Salem as early as mid-September.

In this chaotic context, some local residents said, the ban on grits 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-old Salem resident who paused on his evening walk to watch the couple set up a 12-foot skeleton in front of a Derby Street home. .

Because snacks can be easily hidden, they pose an invisible threat to bartenders and bar owners who are legally responsible for patrons’ consumption of alcohol, said Diane Wolf, a longtime Salem bar owner who supports the proposed ban.

“We find them in the garbage in the bathrooms,” she said, proof 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 – who wore a black T-shirt with the slogan “Salem is not a theme park” – said she was not a teetotaler, and sometimes filled stockings at Christmas. But she was recently taken aback by an online ad for a hair clip with a secret zippered pocket advertised as the perfect place to stash a snack.

Ty Hapworth, a city councilman who lives near the Salem Witch Museum and retrieves empty bottles from his garden almost daily, said he expects liquor store owners to fight the ban.

Deep Patel, manager at Loring Liquors, near Salem State University, said he will be among them.

“That would definitely hurt us,” he said, punching his chest in hurt. “It’s probably 25 per cent of our business that we would lose to neighboring towns – but people will bring back snacks and drop bottles here. So that doesn’t solve the problem.”

Mr. Patel did brisk business as he spoke to a reporter, making four sales in 10 minutes on a quiet Monday night. Two out of four of his customers bought the snacks, including a self-proclaimed single mother who said she liked the cheap minis because “a little drink can go a long way.”

Not all bites are cheap; high-end options exceed $20 each. But the most popular ones cost about $1, including the ubiquitous cinnamon-flavored Fireball (“tastes like heaven, burns like hell,” according to the tagline). At Bunghole, a closet-sized liquor store on Salem’s Derby Street, seasonal supplies include an adult trick-or-treat bag of 15 Fireball snacks.

Abundance inspired a Facebook page, “Fireballs of Salem” where residents document and complain about waste.

Apparently derived from the Old German word nipperkin, means a small part, nips have other names. “My partner and I call them ‘fraternity tracks’ – follow a trail of Fireball nips to find your local frat house,” wrote one Reddit user from Salem.

David H. Jernigan, a professor of health law and policy at Boston University, noted the outcry against nips and sees some logic in it, but cautioned that rigorous research on the public health impact of the conditions is lacking.

“Alcohol taxes are very well studied – we know they save lives,” he said. “But we don’t have that evidence to ban snacks.”

Since Chelsea, a small town north of Boston, became the first place in Massachusetts to ban the sale of grits in 2018 — a move the city said has reduced alcohol-related hospital admissions — the movement has spread. The islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard have followed suit, and unkillable towns are proliferating on Cape Cod.

Prohibition in New Bedford, a former whaling port, takes effect on November 1it was delayed last week under pressure from the city’s liquor store owners, who said they would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual sales.

Town meeting voters in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, rejected the ban last month heated debatebut the winning liquor store owners extended an olive branch, offering to add a 5-cent deposit to every snack sale and donate the funds to the city to help with recycling.

Robert Mellion, president of the Massachusetts Package Sellers Association, thinks a statewide 5-cent deposit on nips would be a better way to deal with the waste problem, and has repeatedly lobbied lawmakers for the change, he said.

However, even when empties are returned, disposal is complicated: the bottles are too small to be recycled effectively, according to the statewhich recommends throwing them away instead.

Attempts to enact statewide bite bans Maine and Rhode Island failed in recent years. Elsewhere in the country, Utah and New Mexico have banned most nipa sales, as did the city of Chicago 20 years ago.

In Salem, some residents are envisioning environmentally friendly replacements for small plastic containers. A Reddit user jokingly suggested a “bottle refill program” in Witchtown, with “liquor stores on tap.”

William Legault, a former city councilman who tends bar at the Columbus Society Lounge, sees bigger problems. “If you want to do something about trash in Salem, ban cigarettes,” he said. “See how well that goes.”

Mr. Carter had another proposal, one that some Salemites dream about every fall.

“How about banning Haunted Events,” he said, “and not bringing all the people here?”

Julie Bosman contributed to the reporting.

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