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I live in a country where alcohol is not allowed. I am hoping that someone else might help explain why, in some movies, drunk characters consume alcohol directly from the bottle when it is still inside a paper bag.

Why specifically a brown paper bag? wouldn't a black plastic bag be equivalent?

Why not take it out of the bag and drink it?

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  • 2
    Could this one appear on law.stackexchange to get even more accurate answers while not removing it from here? Probably quite the meta question
    – Stellaris
    Jun 27 at 6:57
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    I don't see how this is a Movies&TV.SE question. It belongs on Law.SE
    – Cascabel
    Jun 27 at 18:40
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    @Cascabel - there's always going to be a bit of overlap, since the question is clearly inspired by a Movies & TV trope I think it's more fitting here. (Ahmad is not even sure it's a legal thing by the looks of the question), but asking on Law.SE why they do such and such in a movie is probably just going to get you sent here!
    – colmde
    Jun 28 at 8:57
64

It's to do with US drinking/alcohol laws.

Apparently it's illegal to carry open containers of alcohol, so by placing it inside a brown paper bag, this claims "it's not open" and "I'm not really drinking it".

The brown bag would be the one the store placed it in at purchase.

I don't know whether this is an actual law across all 50 States or whether it has just become 'movie shorthand' to explain why an outdoor drinker might 'have a problem with alcohol' sufficient that they can't wait til they get home, or that they don't have a home to take it to.

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29

Contrary to the implication of the other posted answer, covering an open container of alcohol with a brown paper bag does not change the legality as it relates to open-container/drinking-in-public laws.

It's not hard to find credible references to refute the idea that a brown paper bag helps:

Whether the open container of alcohol is covered or not, you are not protected from getting arrested in the majority of the states in the country.

and…

Whether you have the bag covering your 40 oz. of Mickey's or not will not protect you from being arrested in most states -- not even in Las Vegas, where drinking from a container that was sold as sealed or corked in public is illegal.

What the bag does do is offer some plausible deniability to law enforcement who may prefer to overlook the violation:

Brown-baggin’ your beer allows cops to ignore you and pretend that there could be anything in that paper bag. Oh, sure, they know it’s probably liquor you’re drinking, but as long as you’re discreet, and resist the impulse to write “Liquor Bag” on the paper in Sharpie, then they’ll probably pass you by.

I won't comment on the general social problem of laws that are selectively enforced by police officers, other than to observe that it's a real problem. Being white with a bottle in a brown paper bag is relatively safe, while being dark skinned with a bottle in a brown paper bag is just as likely to draw attention to yourself.

Interestingly, according to one reference, if you are arrested/ticketed for drinking in public in New York City, the citation must include evidence that the liquid being consumed exceeded an alcohol content of 0.5%. When covered with a paper bag, it would be impossible to know for sure the content. But that doesn't stop an officer with reasonable suspicion from inspecting the contents of a paper bag and identifying it as alcoholic.

Bottom line: the "drinking from a brown paper bag" has no real basis in law, but as a trope in movies and TV, has some limited basis in fact due to the selective enforcement by police officers of the applicable open-container/drinking-in-public laws.

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11

To further expand on the above answers, which are certainly correct in terms of the real-world reasoning for placing alcohol in bags (from a legal standpoint and a police plausible deniability standpoint), placing alcohol in a bag on screen helps get around any copyright problems with displaying a brand of alcohol, while still allowing the viewer to recognize that the character is drinking alcohol.

In many countries there are alcohol and tobacco advertising laws too, which can restrict showing certain brands or behaviours on screen. Because it is quite well understood in western cultures that alcohol is sold and then placed in a paper bag by the shop keeper, this becomes a handy visual aid on screen that has broad recognition. You can keep production costs down by

a) not having to get the approval from a brand

b) not having to re-label alcohol to avoid copyright

and c) not having to get cozy with an alcohol sponsor which then may impact the reach/social approval of your film

https://www.artslaw.com.au/information-sheet/using-brands-and-products-in-film/

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  • Don't they usually solve this on movies and TV with generic "Beer" labels on beer cans?
    – Barmar
    Jun 27 at 1:43
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    @Barmar sometimes. I've been around productions where a designer will make mock labels that kind of look like recognisable brands, but not near enough to cause legal issues. It comes at an additional cost when organising your props, both in material cost as well as time costs. Jun 27 at 6:11
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    @AaronLavers I sense a market for an in-house "brand" that could be re-used across many productions. Maybe with two or three different feels (futuristic, modern, old fashioned) but any time you want to re-brand a bottle or other packaging, print out a label with one of the pre-created assets and slap it on. Probably with some kind of annoying cross-brand tie-in to something else they own. (Fast & Furious brand beer, anyone?) Jun 28 at 17:17
6

There is a famous speech from the US TV show The Wire about this very issue. Video can be found here. Below is a transcript. A senior police officer is addressing other police:

Somewhere back in the beginning of time, this district had itself a civic dilemma of epic proportions. The city council had just passed a law that forbade alcoholic consumption in public areas; on the streets and on the corners. But the corner is, it was and it always will be the poorman's lounge. It's where a man wants to be on a hot summer's night. It's cheaper than a bar. Catch a nice breeze and watch the girls go on by. But the law is the law so what are the western cops gonna do? They arrest every dude for tipping back a High Life, there'd be no time for any other kind of police work. And if they look the other way, they open themselves up to all kinds of flaunting, all kinds of disrespect. Now, this is before my time but somewhere back in the 50's or the 60's, there was a moment of goddamn genius by some nameless smokehound who comes out the Cut-Rate one day and on his way to the corner he slips that just bought pint of elderberry into a paper bag. A great moment of civic compromise. That small wrinkled ass paper bag allowed the corner boys to have their drink in peace and gave us permission to go and do police work. The kind of police work that's actually worth the effort, that's actually worth taking a bullet for.

To summarize, public drinking is typically illegal in the United States but is viewed as a minor offense by the police who would rather not have to waste their time enforcing it but also do not want to be disrespected by flagrant offenders. Drinking from a paper bag is then a signal that the drinker knows public drinking is illegal but is doing so in a manner that is deemed most socially acceptable and most respectful of police.

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  • This is THE answer (mainly because it is the answer).
    – RonJohn
    Jun 29 at 3:22
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While this doesn't directly answer the question, the main reasons liquor is put in paper instead of plastic bags are:

  1. Paper bags are opaque. There is no label that says this is alcohol. In the US, every state, every county, and every city is allowed to have different subsets of laws dealing with alcohol. In extreme cases, if the law can see the container, even closed, you can be arrested just for having it. (This would clearly be a different location than where the purchase was made.)

  2. But the original reason is to protect glass bottles. Glass bottles knocking into each other break very easily. Glass containers for groceries are rare now for this reason. Well, that and weight. Simply placing one of two glass containers in paper before putting them in another bag together greatly reduces the odds of disaster. Since the store then has single bottle sized bags, they would also use them for single bottle purchases.

Given those, that is why our character has a bottle in a bag. But I haven't answered why it stays in the bag in the movies.

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  • I've seen plain brown paper bags used to keep glass bottles from knocking into each other but also some kind of plastic mesh "sock" that fits around the bottle tight. My guess is that these are not common, and might not be as by being mesh plastic they likely cannot be recycled. The mesh does not obscure the labels and so people wanting to cover the label to avoid open container laws, or avoid an accidental endorsement on TV or film, will prefer the brown paper bag.
    – MacGuffin
    Jun 28 at 16:53
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    Another point to add is that glass is used to hold alcohol because it is both air tight and resistant to corrosion. Metal cans are air tight but need to be lined to stop corrosion. Plastic is resistant to corrosion and air tight "enough" for carbonated sugary beverages but not to keep from alcohol dissolving the plastic and/or air getting in to skunk up the beer/wine/whatever. Side note, beer and wine bottles are often dark in color to prevent light from skunking up the beverage, no doubt that a paper bag helps too. Paper likely keeps cold beverages colder longer.
    – MacGuffin
    Jun 28 at 17:10
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    Some good points. Paper would certainly help protect from light and that is quite important for flavor. The plastic mesh is a fairly recent invention and does protect much better than a layer of paper. I'm not sure when it came about, but wouldn't apply to most of Hollywood history. I think other posters are correct that at this point, the paper bag is as much an icon as a practicality.
    – UrQuan3
    Jun 28 at 18:02
  • @MacGuffin "I've seen ... some kind of plastic mesh "sock" that fits around the bottle tight". Not Colt 45 or Olde English 800 bought at the liquor store in the low rent part of town.
    – RonJohn
    Jun 29 at 3:14
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In addition to the other answers, in many places in the US, stores are *legally required" to put alcohol into paper bags. So the alcohol will already be in that, and the alcoholic just doesn't take it out for the reasons mentioned in the other answers.

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I believe it's more to do with advertising laws (and perhaps film rating codes, eg 16+ if it shows alcohol consumption) than public drinking laws. The plot needs to indicate a character is drinking, but it's unnecessary (and too expensive) to get into what kind of booze they are drinking, or what brand. Luckily, this trope is so recognizable now, no more explanation is required, and the plot is not interrupted.

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    Hmmm...back in the day they'd make-up labels, like "Tuna" or "Beer" or fake beers: insidethecask.com/2019/08/20/… These days they're glad to feature brands on everything. Do you know people in the movie prop biz who say they used brown bags that way? Jun 27 at 0:00
  • 5
    Movie companies don't pay to show brand names. The product vendors pay the movie companies for "product placement".
    – Barmar
    Jun 27 at 1:44
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    OTOH, some companies are protective of their brands. Apple will only allow their products to be used by the "good guys".
    – Barmar
    Jun 27 at 17:35
-2

There are various explanations here but, the most concise answer is: because it is a trope. And a well known trope at that.

Most of the answers to why it is seen are valid reasons that people in the past had for keeping their liquor in the bag, most notably the "legality" & "social acceptability" reasons. However in modern times it usually has no actual necessity, and is rarely done by real people.

Some people in real life might actually do this, usually as sort of tradition -- it's what they've seen the older generations do & they've never questioned why, just copied the same behavior, & whatever practical reasons started the behavior have been forgotten over generations of copying, i.e. "We do it this way because that's how it's always been done, because that's the way we've always done it"

Some might do it out of a sense of shame about drinking in public, of course it isn't so shameful to them that they'd actually refrain from drinking in public, just enough that they wish to "disguise" it.

Of course using the trope creates many conveniences for film/tv makers, and so they keep using it, even though it has little reflection in modern real life.

As to why it is a paper bag & not plastic, that is quite simple: when the practice of keeping liquor hidden in the bag was actually commonplace, plastic bags had not yet been invented, paper bags were the only option at stores, including liquor stores. This is the very reason it was practiced, keeping the bottle in the bag provided "beverage anonymity" in public and was simple way to avoid a number of possible troubles for the drinker.

The practice backfired as it became more common, as eventually people began to assume that someone drinking from the bag had liquor; and thus the trope was born.

1
  • "Some people in real life might actually do this". Loitering laws are much more strictly enforced now, but when I was a teen it was quite common for a bunch of blue collar stiffs to stand around drinking beer from brown paper bags in the 7-11 parking lot on Friday after work.
    – RonJohn
    Jun 29 at 3:24

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