Westminster drops proposal to ban tobacco sales
WESTMINSTER — The local board of health on Wednesday abruptly dropped a controversial proposal to ban all tobacco sales in this small central Massachusetts town, one week after hundreds of angry residents forced a public hearing on the plan to come to a raucous close.
Opponents had said the proposed ban, which would have been the first of its kind in the state, was a sign of excessive government interference in private life. Some also expressed concern that a ban would harm the local economy. Board member Edward J. Simoncini Jr. made it clear the reaction affected his vote.
“It’s no longer under consideration — thank you, you made the difference,” Simoncini said after a brief meeting Wednesday in which the three-member board, without opening the question to the public, voted 2-1 to kill the proposal.
The audience of about 40 offered a muted round of applause.
“It is obvious the town is against it and therefore I am against it,” Simoncini said. Board member Peter M. Munro also voted to withdraw the proposal. He made no public comment.
Andrea Crete, the board chairwoman, cast the sole vote against withdrawing the proposal.
“I’m disappointed because we were trying to do something good,” Crete said in an interview after the meeting. “We could have made Westminster tobacco-free in the sense children would have no exposure to tobacco at the stores.”
Crete said she regrets not doing a better job of educating residents and business owners in the mostly rural town of about 7,400 about 20 miles north of Worcester.
“We didn’t want to stop people from smoking in private, but unfortunately that’s the way it came off,” she said.
Simoncini told the audience the idea for the ban began in April when the board routinely — and publicly — took up a review of its tobacco regulations. He said the board considered following other municipalities in banning tobacco at pharmacies that otherwise dispense health products.
“It was felt it was wrong to single out the one pharmacy in town” in banning tobacco products, he said. So the board drafted regulations that included the ban “to have something to talk about,” he said. Once the draft regulations circulated, it was loud and clear the town opposes them, Simoncini said.
At the local VFW post, opponents of the measure celebrated the decision Wednesday.
“I don’t believe three people on the Board of Health should decide what a whole town is going to do — and not do,” said Francis Rameau, 59, who was sitting at the bar.
“Who do they think they are?” said George Keaveny, 70, sitting next to Rameau. “You want a beer, you get a beer. You want a cigarette, you get one. That’s the way it works in this country.”
“It’s the freedom thing — it’s our rights,” said bartender Erin McGuire, 32. “It’s awesome it got shot down.”
Other opponents have begun a petition to recall the board members; as of Wednesday, they had obtained about 75 of the required 800 signatures, said Brian Vincent, owner of Vincent’s Country Store.
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.
At its first public hearing on Nov. 12, about 500 people, overwhelmingly against the ban, had crowded into the building and refused Crete’s demands to come to order. She ended the meeting and was later escorted out of the building under police protection.
“Things were getting pretty nasty in town,” Crete said Wednesday.
The ban would have covered 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 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, including Boston, have banned smoking in public parks.
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 US surgeon general that says this year alone, nearly 500,000 adults in the country will die prematurely because of smoking.
Crete said she believed that someday such a tobacco sales ban may be implemented — in Westminster or elsewhere. She also said the reaction to the proposed ban will not keep her from running for another term in April.
“I think I have a lot to offer,” she said. “Public health is my passion.”