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Westminster should focus on smoking prevention

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There are radical proposals, and then there’s Westminster’s plan to ban tobacco sales within town limits. Health officials in the small central Massachusetts town propose snuffing out the sale of tobacco products. Their stated goal is a noble one: To curb smoking among young people, who are a prime target of slick tobacco industry ads and risk getting hooked early. The Westminster Board of Health, which will hold a public hearing on the proposal Nov. 12, has an undeniable point about the dangers of smoking. But there’s a good reason why no other city or town in Massachusetts has ever imposed such a ban. Tobacco is a legal substance that people consume at their own risk. Why stop there? Alcohol can kill; fatty foods and sugary sodas contribute to obesity, a growing health scourge nationally.

On a practical level, the tobacco ban in a single community would be mostly symbolic, while dealing a real blow to local businesses. One Westminster convenience store owner said tobacco products account for about 6 percent of his store’s sales. The sale of other sundries that customers pick up along with a pack of cigarettes — the chips, the sodas and other drinks, and the lottery tickets — would also be lost. It adds up, on average, to about one-third of store sales, according to convenience store industry studies. And there’s no evidence that hobbling those businesses in one town will actually aid public health: If the Westminster Board of Health prevails, there will be plenty of other options for the smokers among its 7,200 residents to buy cigarettes in nearby towns.

“Perhaps we cannot convince people to quit smoking, but we want to influence youth not to start,” said Elizabeth “Wibby” Swedberg, a Westminster health official. Focusing on kids makes sense, but the town would be better served by stepping up tobacco prevention education instead of arbitrarily hurting local stores.

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