City officials from Chelsea traveled across the Mystic today to tell Boston city councilors how a ban on 50-mil liquor bottles has meant fewer drunken incidents for police and EMTs to respond to and cleaner and even safer streets.
But City Councilor Michael Flaherty (at large) wasn't having it. At a hearing today, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out what he called "a four-needle pack, a meth and crack PACK" that Boston public-health workers give out at Mass and Cass and said the city should show more concern about the health risks posed to children and other park goers from discarded needles before worrying about all the tiny glass and plastic bottles that can be found pretty much everywhere across Boston.
"The goal of attaining a cleaner planet through litter removal is admirable," but not if it means student athletes have to avoid some field for fear of getting jabbed by a needle.
City Councilor Kendra Lara (Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury), however, questioned why Flaherty seemed fixated on needles, as if a large city like Boston could not address two issues at once. Referring to the council in particular, she said, "I think as a body we can walk and chew gum at the same time and so our interest in this issue does not negate our interest in other issues."
Still, Flaherty persisted. He pressed Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, on whether getting jabbed by a discarded, used needle is potentially more of a health risk than getting jabbed with a broken glass bottle and she acknowledged it was. But she continued that she would love to see the council and mayor appropriate more money for needle cleanups and said the city doesn't just give out needles for the heck of it, that clean needles are "harm reduction" and not only help protect their users from diseases such as AIDS, Hepatitis C and endocarditis but reduce the odds of communicable diseases being spread through needle use. She said Boston has long been a leader in running needle exchanges as a public-heath measure.
In response to a series of questions from City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo (Hyde Park, Roslindale, Mattapan), who proposed banning the sale of small bottles, Ojikutu said that unlike needles, the distribution of tiny liquor bottles does nothing to stop the spread of any diseases. Arroyo says that banning a type of alcohol-delivery package used by alcoholics in particular would help battle alcoholism and the diseases and problems it causes - from cirrhosis to domestic abuse. He noted that Boston already has at least 70 liquor stores that do not sell 50-ml bottles, under a policy started by Mayor Walsh, in which proposed operators of new stores or who want to buy existing licenses are asked to agree to a ban as part of their license.
Chelsea Police Chief Keith Hougton and former City Councilor Roy Avellaneda told Boston councilors that their city's 2018 ban on the bottles has been nothing short of revolutionary: The number of alcohol-related police calls had dropped significantly, panhandlers no longer line Broadway seeking enough change to rush into a liquor store to buy another tiny bottle and as a result, downtown Chelsea is beginning to bloom again as everybody else no longer fears walking its streets.
Avellaneda said local meals tax receipts are up as people go out to eat there again. Houghton said he is no longer worried about taking his own children along the Broadway corridor. And no local liquor stores have closed.
Avellenada said banning the small bottles is as much a public-health measure as handing out clean needles, because they are a cheap supply for alcoholics. "What does it say about our society, just walking by all these bottles and not sharing similar outrage (as to spent needles)?" he asked. "We should be just as outraged" by all the minis and what they represent, he said. "It's the same thing."
They were joined in testimony by Jason Owens, a Chelsea city "navigator" who tries to help local alcoholics get into treatment, and who explained the problem with the small bottles during his 18 months as a bouncer at West End Johnnie's on Portland Street near North Station: Women, in particular, would walk in with the tiny bottles on Friday and Saturday night, go into the ladies' room, down their bottles, toss them into the toilets, then exit completely "legless" even as they avoided paying for the bar's pricier drinks.
Victoria Gall of Hyde Park testified repeated volunteer efforts by her and other Hyde Park residents to Keep Hyde Park Beautiful in part by collecting the bottles have largely come to naught - not because it's not easy to collect bottles but because they keep showing up. A couple years ago, volunteers collected 10,000 of them in Hyde Park.
Gall said earlier this year, she collected 333 of the things in just 90 minutes at five locations from Wolcott Square to Egleston Square - at train stations, in the middle of Truman Parkway, in a parking lot in Roslindale. The one thing all the sites had in common: They were near liquor stores.
"We are disheartened and have cleanup fatigue, she said.
Steve Rubin, owner of Huntington Wine and Sprits, though, said it's time to stop blaming liquor stores for the fact that people are slobs. He said despite Chelsea's evidence, a ban in Boston could bankrupt small businesses, many of them owned by minorities and that the only real answer is "private/public partnerships" of the type that have, to date, not done anything to curb the problem. Massachusetts packies have their own campaigns to convince people to drop their empties in the trash - but where are government-funded campaigns?
Rubin said he supports adding the small bottles to the state bottle bill - which he said would encourage people to earn some change by picking up the little bottles. And he said the state and cities should use money that is already not refunded for existing bottles to clean up parks.
He continued that banning the small bottles outright would only encourage people to buy the next size up - 200 ml - and that would just mean more litter and drunkenness.
Rubin acknowledged no Chelsea liquor stores shut down, but said they hemorrhaged business to neighboring cities - Everett, Revere and Boston, specifically East Boston. Mini-bottle consumers would do the same thing in Boston, he predicted - go to the next town over.
Newton City Councilor Emily Norton said there were no negative reactions when her city's licensing commission banned the bottles in 2021, in fact, one large liquor-store owner supported it as a way to curb litter in the Garden City. She said she originally proposed the measure as another step towards reducing the production and consumption of plastic - similar to Newton's and Boston's bans on thin plastic grocery bags.
She said the production of plastics in general, and the type used in the little bottles in particular, falls most heavily on Black and Brown communities across the country, since industrial concerns find it easier to set up shop near them than near affluent White communities.
She also urged Boston to ban the bottles, because she doubts state action to add them to the list of returnables will come anytime soon: "If we're going to wait for the state legislature, I would just say forget it."