WESTMINSTER — An unruly public hearing on a proposal to prohibit the sale of tobacco products came to a sudden and rowdy halt Wednesday evening after shouting and clapping opponents of the ban repeatedly refused the chairwoman’s request to come to order.
The ban, proposed by the Board of Health in this Central Massachusetts town, would be the first of its kind in the state. It has led to angry reactions from residents who worry that it will hurt the local economy and allow government too much discretion in controlling private conduct.
“This is about freedom; it’s my body and it’s my choice to smoke,” said Nate Johnson, 32, a Westminster farmer and auto body worker. He was puffing on a cigarette at a rally before the hearing where opponents held signs saying “It’s not about tobacco — it’s about control” and “Smoke ’em if you got them.”
Emotions flared at the hearing, where about 500 people crowded into an elementary school gym. When one resident loudly pronounced himself “disgusted” that the board would make a proposal that infringed on personal choice, the crowd roared with approval.
After several failed attempts to bring the hearing to order, chairwoman Andrea Crete gaveled the session to an end. As police shadowed Crete out of the building, many in the audience broke out in a verse of “God Bless America.” Opponents also collected signatures on a petition to recall the three elected board members.
“It was going to get out of control,” Crete said later. “We don’t need any riots.”
The ban would cover sales of products containing tobacco or nicotine, including cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and electronic cigarettes, which use batteries to heat nicotine-laced liquid, producing a vapor that is inhaled.
The proposal, made public Oct. 27, touched off an intense reaction from opponents. More than 1,000 of the town’s 7,400 residents signed a petition against the ban.
“This board is making a mockery of this town,” said Kevin West, the man whose remark stoked passions at the meeting.
Brian Vincent, owner of Vincent’s Country Store, said he was concerned about a loss of business. “We need to keep Westminster dollars being spent in Westminster, not going to the next town over,” he said.
The hearing, originally scheduled for Town Hall, was moved to Westminster Elementary School to accommodate the crowd. Westminster is a mostly rural town about 20 miles north of Worcester.
Crete said the board would accept written comments on the proposed ban until Dec. 1. She said the three-member elected board would then vote whether to enact the ban, probably at a meeting before the end of the year. She said the public hearing will not be reopened.
Crete, a pubic health official in Hudson and a longtime Westminster resident, said after the hearing that the ban is intended to “save lives and prevent kids from becoming tobacco users.”
The panel had been considering a ban for months and had become increasingly frustrated by tobacco companies’ aggressive marketing and new products, like 69-cent bubble gum-flavored cigars aimed at enticing younger smokers, town health agent Elizabeth “Wibby” Swedberg said in a Globe interview last month.
The ban represents the latest salvo in the decades-old campaign to curb tobacco use, which is linked to lung cancer, heart disease, and other ailments.
Already, the use of tobacco is prohibited in all Massachusetts workplaces, including restaurants and bars. It is also illegal to sell tobacco products to minors, and some municipalities have banned smoking in public parks, including Boston.
In Westminster, as in many other Massachusetts municipalities, the local health board regulates tobacco sales. The board’s five-page proposal cites a recent report from the surgeon general that says this year alone, nearly 500,000 adults in the country will die prematurely because of smoking.
Vincent said tobacco products account for about 6 percent of his sales, and his concern is not just about the loss of those sales, but other items people often buy when they are getting cigarettes, such as cold drinks, bags of chips, and lottery tickets.
He said that while tobacco products may be less than 10 percent of sales in grocery stores, they can account for one-third or more of total sales at convenience stores, industry analyses have shown.