Powder Keg

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  1/22/2006

Around midnight one Saturday in November, as often occurs on weekends in Allston, police fielded complaints about a loud party on Gardner Street, at the former home of Boston University's Phi Delta Theta fraternity.

Soon after, two officers in street clothes joined a line at the back of the house, where hundreds of college students paid $5 for a plastic cup courtesy of a 20-year-old doorman, according to a police report.

When the officers reached the door, they showed their badges and seized the young man's wad of cash. Afterward, they cleared some 300 mostly underage students from the house and made two arrests. They found, according to the report, assorted Jell-O shots and five kegs filled with Bud Light.

It may have been a routine call for an area where some 20,000 students live, but police cite something noteworthy about the incident: They traced the kegs to Wollaston Wines & Spirits -- in Quincy.

The case exposed a loophole in the city's latest effort to control student drinking. With little fanfare a few weeks before, and under pressure from the mayor and City Council, the Boston Licensing Board passed a rule requiring liquor stores to give police the name and address of anyone buying a keg of beer -- possibly the first such law in the nation.

It didn't take long for students to learn that getting blitzed by the barrel requires little more than a quick drive to Quincy or Cambridge or a short walk to Brookline or Newton, police say.

"This is how easy it is to avoid the law," says Captain William B. Evans, who's in charge of enforcing laws in Allston-Brighton.

In Boston, the unanimously passed keg regulation is just the latest skirmish in the city's centuries-old battle with booze, one that reaches back to its teetotaling Puritan founders and the Blue Laws banning Sunday alcohol sales, which began in the Colonial era but weren't wiped off the books until 2004.

The new rules were first proposed a year ago following the Red Sox pennant-victory riots that left Emerson College junior Victoria Snelgrove dead, shot by police with a "nonlethal" crowd-control weapon.

Each year, more than 1,000 college students die and 500,000 are injured nationally as the result of alcohol, according to a 2002 report by the Boston University School of Public Health.

"The goal is that we don't lose any more lives," says Councilor Stephen J. Murphy, who proposed the law. "Police found 67 kegs bought that night at liquor stores in Boston that went to houses later identified as off-campus student housing. We wanted to do something about it."

Officials at the Licensing Board, as well as national and statewide liquor store associations, said they're unaware of any other city that has adopted such a law.

"Other cities do regulate keg sales, but as far as we know, it's the only law of its kind where you have to inform the police immediately on the sale of a keg," says

John Bodnovich, a spokesman for the American Beverage Licensees, which represents 20,000 beer, wine, and liquor stores around the country.

The rules took effect last fall at the finale of another election season, only a few weeks after Mayor Tom Menino had just wangled headlines calling for alcohol-free "entertainment zones" -- designated nightspots in places such as Faneuil Hall Marketplace where underage residents could gather to party, sans cocktails.

"We have to get beyond people going to bars and drinking," Menino had told the Globe in October.

Last January, the city's police commissioner announced Operation Student Shield, to crack down on public drinking and loud parties. (By year's end, police had arrested 23 people age 20 or younger for liquor law violations.) Another proposal under consideration would require local universities to assess students $100 per semester to cover policing costs during big sports events. Councilor Murphy says the plan would raise $36 million for the city, but he may shelve the proposal to instead press local universities to add $100 million to their payments to the city.

Party time in student cityStill, loud parties persist and students continue to guzzle alcohol. For many students in the prime target area, Allston-Brighton, the party lives on, particularly now, at the beginning of the semester, with the Super Bowl approaching and schoolwork not yet back in high gear.

Sales of kegs in the neighborhood continue at a steady pace -- about 25 a weekend, local police say. But students say they've started trading kegs for beer balls, which are about one-third the size, and cases of beer.

In interviews, owners of liquor stores across Allston-Brighton say they've seen a modest rise in sales of beer balls since the law took effect in late October. "They buy what they need, even if it's not a keg," says George Haivanis, owner of Reservoir Wines & Spirits Inc. in Brighton. "They're still going to drink. As long as they're of age and responsible, we don't mind."

It's not clear whether keg sales are up in neighboring communities -- owners of liquor stores say they haven't noticed any significant spike -- but police say that even if the new law doesn't prevent students from buying kegs, the information can be helpful.

"Our goal isn't to track where every keg goes," Captain Evans says, noting his officers review each fax from liquor stores. "We're looking for problem houses, where multiple kegs are going."

For some students, the police are starting to feel like Big Brother.

The law also requires liquor stores to tell police the number of kegs bought, the time of the sale, and when and where they're going.

"This is another in a series of attempts to curb student life and regulate any semblance of privacy for students," says John Guilfoil, 22, a Kappa Sigma fraternity member who serves as executive vice president of Northeastern's student government.

He cites the city's effort last year to require campuses to turn over the addresses of all off-campus students, as well as Murphy's proposal to hike student fees.

"If you're of age, and you want to have a keg, you're allowed to do that -- and I don't see why the government needs to know," says Guilfoil, noting kegs, which hold about 15 gallons of beer, offer a better value for larger parties. "Alcohol is a part of adult life all over the world."

A toast to Big Brother?
Others describe the new law as government intrusion.

"Don't the police have anything more important to do?" asks Catie Gavenonis, 24, a law student at Boston University. "It's like everyone has to have a personal liquor license, and you're being watched even if you haven't done anything wrong."

The Licensing Board's chairman, Daniel Pokaski, defends the new keg law as a sensible, if flawed, attempt to rein in student drunks, countless numbers of whom have spilled onto the streets in recent years after postseason Patriots and Red Sox victories, starting bonfires, turning over cars, and climbing streetlights.

"We understand the rule is full of loopholes," he says. "If the kids want to buy cases of beer or jugs of alcohol or booze, they can still do that. But if it works once or twice, then I think it's effective."

The law, he argues, doesn't violate anyone's rights.

"Alcohol is a highly regulated commodity, like drugs," he says. "This isn't like Big Brother; it's like requiring a permit to buy a gun or a prescription before you buy drugs at a pharmacy."

A more effective way to reduce student drinking would be to raise taxes on beer or ban two-for-one kinds of sales, says Henry Wechsler, director of the college alcohol studies program at the Harvard School of Public Health. Until state policymakers take action -- local ordinances are too easy to avoid -- it's unlikely students will change their drinking habits, he says.

You open it, you drink it up"There's a rule that once a container is opened, it's drained, and the larger the container, the more consumed," Wechsler says. "So it's a good idea to reduce access to kegs."

"But at the same time the city is cracking down, they're making it easier to drink," he says, referring to the Licensing Board's decisions last year to open the streets around Fenway Park to alcohol vendors and allow the Red Sox to build more than a dozen new beer stands inside the park.

"They're sending mixed signals," Wechsler says.

Meanwhile, Marty's Liquors at Commonwealth Avenue and Harvard Avenue has a sign advertising the merchandise: "Marty's features the largest selection and lowest priced kegs in town."

Inside, past rows of Jagermeister and tequila, behind another sign advising customers to "Remember: Ice, Cups, and Party Supplies!", stacks of freshly filled kegs cool in a large refrigerator. There are 30 types of kegs for sale, ranging from Keystone for $39.99 to Guinness Stout for $144.99. The most popular, selling for $47.99, is Bud Light.

Like other liquor store owners interviewed, Marty Siegal says he has no problem with the new law, which hasn't had a noticeable effect on his bottom line.
If the city banned keg sales, he says, he wouldn't mind. Given their small profit margin, he says, he could easily do without the large, space-hogging barrels.

"We're in the service business," he says. "We only sell them because people want to buy them."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com


The cheaper the drink, the stronger the draw to overdo.

A keg of Bud Light costing $47.99 ** holds 165 12-ounce servings, at a cost of about 29 cents per drink

A beer ball of Bud Light costing $28.99 holds 55 12-ounce servings, at a cost of about 53 cents per beer

A case of Bud Light costing $19.99 holds 24 12-ounce servings, at a cost of about 83 cents per beer

Boston police report sales of kegs in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood are holding steady at about 25 kegs per weekend. But some students say they've started trading kegs for cases and beer balls, which are not required to be reported to police



By David Abel
Globe Staff

The potpourri of products for sale include beef jerky, lottery tickets, ice cream, and condoms.

The typical stuff stocked in gas station minimarts.

At the Shell station between Andrew Square and South Bay, a yellow sign near the pumps advertises a few things unavailable at any of the other 122 gas stations in Boston: "Liquor, Beer, Wine."

The 35-year-old former ARCO just west of the Southeast Expressway is the only city gas station licensed to sell alcohol, says Daniel Pokaski, chairman of the Boston Licensing Board, who fought the station's initial application for a liquor license in the 1970s.

And they sell it all, everything from expensive Kendall Jackson wine to big cans of Japan-brewed Sapporo beer to scores of 50-milliliter nips filled with whiskey, rum, tequila, brandy, gin, vodka, and more.

The board granted the license in 1979 to Value Liquors, a separate company formed by Christopher Azizian, the station's owner, according to a copy of the license. The station has renewed its license every year since then, even though the board twice cited the place for selling alcohol to minors and once for selling to an intoxicated customer.

"We've never granted another," Pokaski says. "I think it sends the wrong message. When you're picking up gas, and getting a six-pack, I just think the nexus is too close between drinking and driving."

Azizian and other gas station owners argue the ban against gas stations selling alcohol is unfair, particularly when supermarkets now sell gas and other service stations throughout the state sell liquor.

"What's the difference if it's a gas station or a food store?" Azizian says. "What about package stores in the neighborhood next to a gas station?"

Paul O'Connell, executive director of the New England Service Station and Automotive Repair Association in Billerica, says he would be surprised if the ban existed anywhere but Boston, which for centuries has strictly regulated alcohol sales.

Today, however, about 1,200 corner stores, restaurants, and bars including the Shell station are licensed to sell alcohol in Boston, according to the Licensing Board. "It doesn't make sense," O'Connell says. "You can go to almost any corner store in the Commonwealth to buy liquor."

A spokesman for AAA Southern New England says he has seen no evidence linking drunken driving with alcohol sales at service stations. "A lot of gas stations have liquor stores right next to them, and it seems unfair to me that a gas retailer is wrong to sell liquor if a Stop & Shop can do it," says Art Kinsman.

"Driving is pretty much the way it gets transported anywhere."

On a recent morning at the Shell station, a steady flow of customers stop in for everything from six-packs of Bud Light to small bottles of vodka.

"It happens to be on my way home," says Sean Lewton, 44, of Carver, who takes a six-pack.

Just off work loading supplies at Home Depot, Carlos Diaz and a few buddies walk over for an end-of-the shift celebration. They buy three 40-ounce bottles of Busch, which sell for $2.15 each. "At least we're not driving," says Diaz, 45, of Chelsea.

Business may seem strong at the Shell minimart, but it's down about 80 percent in recent years, Azizian and his manager Tatoul Badalian say.

A decade ago, the Big Dig closed the expressway exit next to their station, which cut business dramatically.

A year ago, construction workers moved the entrance to the expressway, cutting traffic even more.

In the summer, the busiest time of the year for alcohol sales, the station used to sell as many as 100 cases of beer a day; now, it moves maybe six or seven, says Badalian, who has worked for Azizian for 25 years.

"We're just a little dinky store now," Badalian says.

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