Opinion

TOM KEANE

The vice squad

Town of Westminster tries to squelch the right to make bad decisions

istockphoto; heather hopp-bruce/globe staff illustration

Let’s see if I’ve got this right: I can now purchase alcohol on Sunday mornings. Pot is about to become legal everywhere. Casino gambling is soon to be just a subway ride from home. But if the town of Westminster has its way, it would be illegal for anyone to buy a cigarette.

So what are we? A nanny state? Libertarians? Or just confused?

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Massachusetts used to prohibit alcohol sales on Sunday. Thanks to Governor Mitt Romney, that ban was lifted in 2003, allowing sales at noon (kind of like Nixon in China, it took a teetotaler to kill the blue laws). And a new state law last month further relaxed things, permitting liquor stores to open at 10 a.m. — just in time to make those church services tolerable!

Meanwhile, the pot legalization juggernaut proceeds apace. Recreational use is already allowed in Washington state and Colorado. On Tuesday a voter referendum will likely make it legal in the nation’s capital. And Massachusetts is heading in the same direction. The Bay State decriminalized marijuana in 2008, OK’d medical use in 2012, and a possible referendum in 2016 may well legalize weed completely.

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Booze and pot. Two vices call for a third, and that third is gambling. As with liquor during Prohibition and pot even now, gambling used to be flat-out illegal. It was immoral, operators of gambling dens were criminals, and those who frequented them were low-lifes. But then we discovered the fiscal benefits of lotteries — the Massachusetts lottery pulls in $4.9 billion a year. That, in turn, led to the discovery of the economic benefits of casinos which — barring an unexpected result in the upcoming election — will lead to three casinos and one slots parlor around the state. Funny, isn’t it, how money trumps morality?

These tales stand in stark contrast to what’s going on in Westminster, a small town (population 7,765) 60 miles northwest of Boston. Its public health commission just drafted regulations making illegal the sale of everything from chewing tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, and even e-cigs. The town appears to be the first in the nation to seek such a ban, and it seems a crazy, over-reaching outlier.

Perhaps not.

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Viewed through one lens, Massachusetts — and the nation — is becoming more libertarian, seemingly conceding that in their personal lives, at least, people should be able to do what they want. The liberalization of laws relating to booze, pot, and gambling would appear proof of that. Yet at the same time — and under the guise of public health — we’ve become ever less tolerant of people making decisions about other matters, particularly tobacco and food.

Westminster’s public health department recites a familiar litany of ills about tobacco, including the diseases it causes and the addictiveness of nicotine. Because the stuff is bad for you, it concludes, it has to be banned. I suspect that many public health officials around the country, far from thinking this foolish, are nodding their heads in excited agreement — in the same way they got excited about New York City’s attempted ban on sugary drinks.

Of course, Westminster’s concerns about tobacco and nicotine apply equally to all of the other vices we now seem willing to tolerate. Liquor has enormous individual health effects and societal impacts (more than 10,000 people are killed annually by drunk drivers). Joints (most of them smoked without filters) deliver the same contaminants to your lungs as tobacco — 33 of them are cancer-causing, according to the American Lung Association. Gambling is as addictive as nicotine for some and pushes up rates of crime, suicides, bankruptcy, and domestic violence. Using Westminster’s logic, why not ban them all?

The answer, simply, is that in a free society, adults have the right to make decisions about themselves — even bad decisions. That’s the nature of liberty. We can arm people with information — sugar causes obesity, tobacco kills, and pot hurts developing brains. We can limit their effects on other people — banning smoking in bars and restaurants, funding gambling addiction programs, and cracking down on drunk drivers. But there is a clear line between those measures and dictating how people live their lives. Westminster’s paternalism may be well-meaning, but it crosses that line. Its proposal deserves to be trashed.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com

Correction: Westminster is northwest of Boston.

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