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Cohasset may limit sales of most tobacco products

Tobacco users will have a harder time finding a place in Cohasset to buy nicotine products if Town Meeting sides with the Board of Health — and not selectmen or the Advisory Committee — on two tobacco-related bylaw changes.

The Board of Health wants to stop pharmacies and any store containing a pharmacy from selling tobacco products. The board also has proposed adding electronic cigarettes to the list of tobacco products already banned from use in public places in town.

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About 30 communities — including Walpole and Westwood, as well as Boston, Lowell, Springfield, and Worcester -- have outlawed the sale of tobacco products in stores with pharmacies, according to D.J. Wilson of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. He said about 27 municipalities — including Hanover, Kingston, Taunton, Wareham, and Walpole -- include electronic, or smokeless, cigarettes in their rules banning smoking in public places.

Wilson helped the Cohasset Board of Health write its proposed rules, which were championed by longtime board member and dentist Dr. Robin Lawrence.

“I’ve seen firsthand the result of tobacco products — patients who had half their jaw removed due to [cancer] as a result of smoking or smokeless tobacco — so I’m personally against all tobacco products, and I would do anything to reduce the amount of tobacco products being used,” Lawrence said.

He said he was disappointed that neither the Cohasset Board of Selectmen nor the town’s Advisory Committee supported the new rules. The boards especially object to the ban on tobacco product sales in pharmacies, saying it unfairly burdened specific stores, according to selectmen chairman Edwin Carr.

“We understand the intention of the Board of Health, and it’s incredibly admirable,” Carr said. “But we have to focus on the broader aspect. For me, it’s a commercial and economic development issue. Limiting people’s ability to sell goods is not something I was interested in supporting.”

Wilson said Boston was the first community in Massachusetts, in 2009, to make the connection between tobacco and its sale in health-related businesses like pharmacies. “If you’re providing medical advice, you shouldn’t sell tobacco, because tobacco kills and you’re trying to save” people, he said.

He said that about 300 businesses are affected statewide by the prohibition, including major grocery and drugstore chains. In Cohasset, the ban would affect three businesses — Walgreens, CVS, and Stop & Shop — according to health inspector Tara Tradd.

“It’s a trend of thinking in public health,” Tradd said of the proposal. “It’s confusing to go to a [pharmacy] and get good advice on taking your inhaler correctly [for example], and then be able to buy a product [there] that causes respiratory illness.”

She said she hasn’t received any feedback from the local businesses that would be covered by the ban.

Wilson, who heads the state’s municipal tobacco control technical assistance program, said that “to date we’ve had no lawsuits or any enforcement problems” with the ban in other communities. He said that when faced with a choice between getting rid of a pharmacy or tobacco sales, all the stores have chosen to get rid of cigarettes and the like.

Outside of Massachusetts, three cities in California have instituted the rule, as well as Quebec and Ontario, he said.

When Boston was debating the issue, both Walgreens and CVS issued statements saying they were concerned that the rules would inconvenience their customers, reduce sales of other items, and make it more difficult for pharmacists to provide advice to smokers on ways to quit smoking.

In an interview, Dr. Michael Siegel, a tobacco control specialist at Boston University School of Public Health, questioned the effectiveness of such a ban, since smokers will merely go to a different store, and worried that the approach was overreaching.

If pharmacies can’t sell cigarettes, “why should they be allowed to sell potato chips or soda, or anything that can lead to obesity?” he said.

Siegel also had concerns about lumping electronic cigarettes with other tobacco products when regulating public smoking because “there’s no scientific evidence that the exhaled vapor poses any health hazard to bystanders.”

The battery-operated devices, which were introduced in China in 2003, look like cigarettes but produce nicotine-laced vapors that are usually far less potent than the real thing. Studies have shown the e-cigarettes are effective in helping smokers kick the habit, Siegel said.

While Lawrence acknowledged that the health effect of e-cigarettes was unclear, he said their similarity to cigarettes was unsettling.

“From my perspective, using [them] models a child to a smoking behavior that can be easily turned into the real deal,” he said. “I may be out on the fringe, but my responsibility is to look out for the health of the citizens in the town where I live.”

Town Meeting starts Saturday. Tradd said if the smoking bylaw changes fail, the board could implement them on its own, after holding public hearings, by issuing regulations.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.
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