AUGUSTA — Tiny liquor bottles known as “nips” may be causing a spike in drinking and driving in Maine because they’re so easy to chug and chuck, a state official said.

State liquor regulators eyeing a possible ban on the 50-milliliter bottles said there’s been a spike in convictions for operating under the influence that correlates directly with the growing popularity of nips.

Gregory Mineo, director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, said in a recent report that nips offer “essentially a shot of spirits that a driver or passenger can consume in a single swig.”

“Today’s drivers need not fear getting caught with an open container while nursing a bottle,” Mineo said. They can purchase a number of nips and simply “drink and discard” the containers one at a time so there’s never an open one for more than a few seconds, he said.

Mineo’s report lays out a statistical case that his argument is more than just a suspicion.

Maine saw a steady decline in convictions for operating under the influence from 2006 through 2014, thanks in in large part to “education efforts and hard work by advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”

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During those years, the number of annual convictions declined from 5,548 to 3,462, a drop of 38 percent.

But in the past two years, Maine “has experienced a sudden spike in convictions,” Mineo pointed out, up in both 2015 and 2016 to reach 3,735 in the most recent year, an 8 percent increase.

According to MADD, there were 52 traffic deaths in Maine last year attributable to drunken drivers, a third of all the traffic accident fatalities. That’s up more than 40 percent from the year before, the group said.

Since 2006, Mineo said, traffic convictions as a whole continued to decline while operating under the influence convictions reached their highest level in 11 years.

“What the bureau finds most disturbing about this recent spike is how closely it tracks the recent explosion” in nips sales, he said.

In 2007, for example, buyers snapped up 511,331 nip bottles, accounting for 6 percent of overall liquor sales.

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Last year, more than 8.4 million nips were purchased, a 16-fold increase in a decade. They made up a little less than half the state’s alcohol buys, Mineo said.

So far this year, more than 5 million bottles have been sold, he said, making up 54 percent of overall purchases.

The explosion in sales began, he said, in 2014, when more than 3 million nips were sold in Maine.

By the next year, as sales continued to soar, convictions for operating under the influence went up for the first time in seven years, Mineo said.

What’s more, he said, nips “are purchased almost exclusively from convenience stores where consumers typically purchase the food and drink that they consume in their automobiles, as opposed to supermarkets where consumers predominately purchase products they consume in their homes.”

“Although the two supermarket chains with the most agency liquor store licenses, Hannaford’s and Shaw’s, sell seven times more spirits than the two convenience store chains with the most agency liquor store licenses, Circle K and Big Apple, these two convenience store chains sell 49 times more 50-milliliter bottles than these supermarkets,” Mineo noted.

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That wasn’t always the case.

In 2012, Mineo said, convenience stores sold only five times more nips than supermarkets. So the explosion in sales has taken place mostly from small retailers that typically focus on customers’ immediate needs rather than selling products for use at home, he said.

Between the sales evidence and “the increased volume” of nip bottles found along Maine’s roads, Mineo said there’s good reason to think “Maine is experiencing an increase in the amount of spirits that are being consumed in vehicles.”

Mineo said it’s not surprising to see an increase in drinking and driving given “the characteristics and design” of nips.

The most popular brand of nips, Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, contains a tad less alcohol than a typical can of beer, a harder item to conceal.

Mineo said lawmakers have long made it illegal to consume alcohol while driving, and barred “the mere possession of an open alcoholic beverage container” in a bid to deter it.

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Mineo said that nips offer “an alcohol delivery system that enables those who drink while driving to evade Maine’s prohibition against open containers in motor vehicles.”

“Unlike larger bottles, which can be difficult to conceal in a vehicle and are readily visible when jettisoned out a window,” Mineo said, the design of nips “is ideal for avoiding detection during a police stop. It fits easily in pants pockets and can be swiftly crammed into seat crevices.”

“Moreover, its small profile makes its flight from a vehicle window difficult to detect,” he said. Drivers who consume their spirits from nips “have little fear of being caught and cited for an open container violation,” he said.

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Graph showing soaring sales of nips and rising numbers of convictions for operating under the influence.

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