WASHINGTON — The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is proposing a prohibition on some flexible plastic packaging and containers for alcohol, concerned that they might promote underage drinking or be confused with food packaging.
While ATF's proposal does not specify plastic packaging, wine and hard liquor increasingly are packaged in plastic pouches, small test-tubelike containers and thin-walled packaging that can look like dairy products and other consumer packaging.
``ATF is concerned that certain containers are likely to confuse consumers as to the nature of the product, especially those packages that are similar to those that contain ice cream, popsicles, squeeze-package frozen snacks ... or other nonalcohol food products,'' the agency said.
But a company that injection molds three-quarter-ounce test tubes of liquor that would be prohibited under the proposal said ATF's plan will not deter consumer confusion or address the agency's other concerns.
Ray Byrd, vice president of Mango Bottling Inc. in Cocoa, Fla., said the proposal is arbitrary because it exempts aluminum cans and glass bottles, even if those resemble nonalcoholic drinks.
ATF's proposal said the agency ``is not concerned about containers such as aluminum cans or glass bottles that are well-established in the marketplace as both alcohol and nonalcohol beverage containers.''
ATF would prohibit many individual-serving alcohol packages, such as the pocket-sized, three-quarter-ounce test tube of liquor that Mango sells, called a tooter.
Some firms have been manufacturing the package in groups of 30, which ATF allows. But then retailers sell the packages individually, which ATF does not allow, said William Foster, program manager in ATF's alcohol and tobacco regulations office.
Local governments complain that the small containers make it difficult to enforce alcohol laws, and they create problems related to taxes on alcohol containers, Foster said.
ATF would continue to allow alcohol to be sold in shot-size, 11/2-ounce containers, which so far have been limited mainly to hotels and airlines, he said. Foster acknowledged that manufacturers simply could make a 11/2-ounce test tube or pouch.
``In practical terms, that's probably what will happen,'' he said.
The ATF proposal also would prevent alcohol from being served in containers that easily could be mistaken for food or other packaging, like soda bottles, popsicles or large pails, unless the package is labeled clearly.
Foster said the ATF proposal is not directed at plastics, since the restrictions could apply to any material, such as a three-quarter-ounce glass tube. And he said ATF does not want to inhibit innovation in packaging.
``We have problems with nonstandard-sized containers,'' Foster said. ``We are getting complaints from local and state governments about the ease with which consumers can circumvent local requirements.''
But Byrd argued that states that do not want his container already prohibit it, like Texas. He said he has never received a complaint from states that allow the packaging, and he said he worked with ATF to develop labels before he launched the product.
Byrd, who has four injection molding machines, said federal taxes are collected at his factory, making tax collection the same no matter what the container size. And he said underage drinkers and others still can conceal the 11/2-ounce bottles.
ATF is taking comments until April 12, when it will decide whether to implement the proposal.