The vote of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen in early December to support legislation sponsored by Rep. Randy Hunt (R-Sandwich) to place a five-cent deposit on 50-ml (“nip”) bottles of alcohol is a step in the right direction. I opined on this very topic a couple of years ago, and those thoughts are still timely.
In discussing this issue, though, attention needs to be paid to the source of why nips are thrown out car windows. According to the National Institutes of Health, more Americans will die of alcoholism-related deaths this year than opiate overdoses. Generally, casual drinkers do not throw nips on the ground or out the window. So as we drill down on this worthwhile solution, it’s important to explore the problem we’re trying to solve. Here’s what I said in 2017:
“Scholar and Professor John Kingdon developed an effective and widely used tool for public policy analysis that has proven to be a good tool for examining the circumstances surrounding a policy solution and examining its dynamics.
“Called the ‘Three Streams’ model, Kingdon’s theory suggests that for a public policy to become a reality—for it to become enacted into regulation or law—that the three streams of public policymaking—the problem, the policy solution, and the politics—have to come together to move an agenda forward. In other words, in the primordial soup, the messy sausage making that is public policy, an issue needs to be identified—to be somehow moved onto the public agenda—creating the first stream. Next, a solution—a policy proposal—needs to be put forth that addresses that problem or issue, creating the second stream. Finally, and probably most importantly, the politics, or political/public support, needs to be present to move the proposal forward, as even the best policy solutions to the most vexing problems go nowhere without political momentum and support.
“Kingdon’s analysis and theory, which was first introduced more than 30 years ago, has withstood scholarly analysis and scrutiny as well as the test of time because it simply makes sense. Think of any major policy initiative that has progressed to a solution—it always includes an item on the public agenda, a policy solution for that problem or challenge, and the political will to get it passed—or it’s simply an idea or a theory.
“In trying to analyze and understand the recent legislative proposal to place a five-cent deposit on ‘nip’ bottles of alcohol, the small, 50-100ml sized items that are usually behind the counter at area liquor stores and are always littering our streets and sidewalks, I attempted to apply Kingdon’s model to this current gnawing and gnarly public policy issue.
“The growing problem of empty nips strewn about our front yards and public parks is indeed an item clamoring for a public policy solution. When my wife and I take our weekend walks, we encounter many—sometimes dozens—of empty nips along our route. The public support is clearly there as well, from letters, to an online petition with over 1,000 signatures, to a robust showing at a legislative hearing on Beacon Hill, the public is concerned, and supports a legislative solution. Adding nips to the bottle bill will ensure that, like soda and beer cans, even if they are discarded, their value will ensure that most of them are picked up and redeemed. Problem solved, right? Well, perhaps.
“I just wonder if the problem has been correctly identified here, or if the policy solution may need additional work in identifying the root problem. Although I don’t know of any test or specific qualification to be an expert on this subject, if there were one, I’d surely qualify and pass easily. During my active addiction, I estimate that I probably tossed at least 10,000 nips out the window of my car—all over Falmouth and its environs. For that, I am profoundly sorry. But today, as I make amends for that imprudence as someone now in long-term recovery, I also raise that revelation as an issue associated with the policy itself and Kingdon’s three streams model.
“I suggest the problem requiring a solution is not littering. The problem is addiction. Rarely do people who do not have an issue with alcohol addiction purchase nips, much less consume them behind the wheel and throw them out the window. Adding nips to the bottle bill may reduce the litter, but it will not address the source of the problem itself—people struggling deep within the grips of the cunning disease of addiction and trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of consuming nips to conceal their problem, then throwing them out the window to hide it further. Adding nips to the bottle bill will reduce the nuisance of litter, but it will not reduce the tragic and relentless killer that is the source.
“The sponsor of the bill, Sandwich State Representative Randy Hunt, is an effective and tireless advocate for addiction treatment and prevention. He has been at the forefront of effective public policy initiatives that are making a real difference in addressing the scourge of addiction and its impact on our community and our lives. He is a champion on this issue and deserves credit and support for his dogged determination to positively impact the most pressing public health issue of our time. He has 30 co-sponsors for this bill from both sides of the aisle and from geographic areas all over the commonwealth; the bill has widespread support.
“So, the momentum appears headed toward a policy adoption—the convergence of the three streams is likely happening, and some sort of solution will be implemented. I would simply ask the sponsors of the bill to consider further work and making a simple change—to earmark the funds created from the unclaimed deposits (they currently all go to the state) to a fund specifically created to support long-term addiction treatment beds—which would address another vexing policy without a current solution.
“That development would be a win-win-win. It would put scarce resources where they desperately need to be, it would address the problem of nips littering our streets, and it would once again validate the timeless theory of John Kingdon.”
Today, two years later, many of our local leaders understand that conundrum. Rep. David Vieira noted to me that he would “be very open to looking at setting a higher deposit rate…and the additional deposit cents going to treatment funding.” Selectman Susan Moran also weighed in, supporting “a nip ban that would create a direct revenue source for elementary school health education programs focused on the next generation saying “no” to alcohol and opioids, which would be modeled on proven programs such as mindfulness and the say ‘no’ to smoking message.” Rep. Dylan Fernandes is similarly supportive and is a co-sponsor of the current bill, sharing with me that the City of Chelsea has had positive impacts from a ban.
So, the solutions are numerous and consensus on the problem seems to be developing. Two years later, the three streams are still coming together, a good civics lesson on just how difficult and challenging development of good public policy can be. But it’s a good sign that our leaders are still trying to wade through that primordial soup of public policy-making and make some sausage.