A town in central Massachusetts could become the nation’s first community to ban the sales of tobacco and nicotine products, including electronic cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. Westminster’s 7,300 residents are divided on the proposal -- some argue it’s a government overreach that would harm local businesses, while others say it would help keep kids from smoking -- but they won’t be able to cast a ballot on the ban. Instead, only the town’s three-person Board of Health will vote on its proposal, under its authority from the state to set “reasonable” health regulations.
Westminster’s board is holding a public hearing Wednesday evening and will accept public comments on the ban until Dec. 1. A decision is expected shortly thereafter.
According to the American Lung Association, no U.S. community prohibits tobacco sales. But this Westminster proposal comes at a time when some local governments are taking it upon themselves to attempt to limit consumption of products they deem unhealthy. Earlier this month, residents of Berkeley, California, passed a tax on sugary drinks, and a similar measure in San Francisco failed to pass but a majority voted in favor.
In the past few years, more than 100 Massachusetts towns and cities have tightened laws on tobacco products, including bans on the sale of electronic cigarettes, which puff vapor laced with nicotine. Last year, Massachusetts lawmakers raised a tax on cigarettes from $2.51 to $3.51 per pack, making the state tax the second highest in the country behind New York. A pack of cigarettes costs about $6 to $11. The state operates on a precedent set by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1949 that “the right to engage in business must yield to the paramount right of government to protect the public health by any rational means.”
David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, maker of Philip Morris tobacco products, said the ban is “misguided” and “bad policy that will harm local employers.” “We believe businesses should be able to choose which products they carry,” he said. “These retailers are responsible members of the community.”
Westminster’s Board of Health is no stranger to controversy. It tried to move Halloween celebrations to the morning of November 1. After the state department of health declared the town “critical” for exposure to Eastern equine encephalitis, a disease transferred by mosquitoes and with a 33 percent mortality rate, town officials said trick-or-treating would be too risky after dark during peak mosquito hours.
At the hearing, questions from audience members will not be allowed so that speakers receive the most of the two hours, Board of Health Chair Andrea Crete has said. The board will open the meeting with a presentation on tobacco products aimed at youth and then hear comments from residents and business owners.
They have plenty of comments. Facebook followers of Vincent’s Country Store, a family-owned grocery store that has gathered nearly 1,000 signatures on a petition opposing the ban, say the issue goes beyond noble health concerns and is an abuse of government power.
“It is not as if you walk into Vincent's and are asked, ‘Would you like a pack of cigarettes with that?’” one user commented. “Every person who purchases tobacco is doing so of their own free will.” “Board of health not answering questions are nothing but a bunch of cowards. It's time for them to be unappointed,” another user commented.
The store’s owner, Brian Vincent, told NBC that under the ban smokers would simply go to a neighboring town to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products, then probably buy their gas and groceries there as well. “Having other adults decide what legal item we’re not allowed to consume just makes you wonder: If this passes, what could be next? Sugar? Bacon?” he said. The store is known for selling homemade maple bacon chocolate chip cookies.
Westminster retailers have been inspected 21 times with no underage sales violations, according to annual town reports from 2012 and 2013. Cigarettes are the top revenue generator for convenience stores, accounting for 32 percent of all in-store sales, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.
Westminster’s health board cites research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that links tobacco smoking to cancer and respiratory and heart disease and research from the American Heart Association, AHA, that concludes electronic cigarettes can hook ex-smokers back onto smoking traditional cigarettes and normalize smoking behaviors. The AHA supports laws that decrease tobacco use.
Nonsmoker Vicki Tobin supports the ban because she wants to keep cigarettes away from her three young boys. “I just think it’s a great step in a positive way to promote a healthy town, a healthy lifestyle,” she told the Associated Press.