The Central Massachusetts town of Westminster would become the first community in the state, and perhaps the nation, to ban all tobacco sales under a proposal made public Monday that regulators say is designed to improve health, especially among the young.
Draft regulations posted on the town’s website would prohibit sales of products containing tobacco or nicotine, including cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and even electronic cigarettes, which use batteries to heat nicotine-laced liquid, producing a vapor that is inhaled.
The plan has infuriated local store owners, who are circulating petitions to block the action, saying it would drive them out of business and simply send people to nearby communities for their tobacco products.
A ban such as the one under consideration in Westminster represents the next frontier in the campaign to curb tobacco use, which is already prohibited in all Massachusetts workplaces, including restaurants and bars. It is already illegal to sell tobacco products to minors, and some communities have banned smoking in public parks.
In Westminster, a town of 7,400 that sits about 25 miles north of Worcester, the Board of Health has been weighing a total ban for months, said Westminster health agent Elizabeth “Wibby” Swedberg. The board has grown increasingly frustrated trying to stay a step ahead of tobacco companies’ slick marketing and new products, such as 69-cent bubble gum-flavored cigars aimed at luring younger smokers, Swedberg said.
With this action, Westminster’s health board is saying “this doesn’t seem right, that we are permitting products that, if used as directed, 50 percent of people die,” Swedberg said.
In Westminster, as in many Massachusetts communities, the local health board regulates tobacco sales and issues permits allowing its sale.
In recent years, more than 100 Massachusetts communities have expanded their tobacco control rules to include bans on the sale of electronic cigarettes and other nicotine delivery products to minors, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s Tobacco Control Technical Assistance Program.
But it appears Westminster is poised to become the first community in the nation to propose a sweeping prohibition on the sale of tobacco products to anyone, regardless of age, Massachusetts and national tobacco control advocates and researchers said. Though no clearinghouse keeps track, the advocates could not identify another community with such a prohibition.
“This sends a clear message to residents that this is a bad product,” said D.J. Wilson, director of the municipal association’s tobacco control program. He said that a ban may not stop adults from driving to another town to get cigarettes, but may be effective in curbing younger people, who are unable to drive.
The health board’s five-page proposal cites research about the heavy health toll tobacco has exacted in the United States, including a recent report from the surgeon general that concluded this year alone, nearly 500,000 adults in the country will die prematurely because of smoking.
But store owners said it is unfair to ban sales of a legal product and they worry that their financial losses will be considerable. Westminster has seven stores licensed to sell tobacco.
“Where do you draw the line, a candy ban because it causes diabetes? Are we going to ban bacon because it causes [high] cholesterol? It seems like a slippery slope,” 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 the loss of those sales, but other items people buy when getting cigarettes, such as a cold drink, a bag of chips, and lottery tickets. While tobacco products may be less than 10 percent of sales in grocery stores, cigarettes and other tobacco products can account for one-third or more of total sales at convenience stores, industry analyses have shown.
At Westminster Liquors, Michael Fratturelli is concerned that residents will head to surrounding towns, where there are plenty of stores to buy cigarettes.
“Nobody is going to stop smoking because this town decided to ban cigarettes,” Fratturelli said. “Businesses won’t want to come to this town anymore, and the value of our businesses will go down.”
Swedberg said the board will listen to residents’ concerns at a public hearing scheduled for Nov. 12, and that it is not the board’s intention to put anyone out of business. In order for it to be enacted, the three-member Board of Health has to take a vote to approve the ban.
She also said it is “a little bit daunting” to be the first community to propose a ban on tobacco sales and that her office has been swamped with phone calls reacting to the plan, which had begun leaking out last week.
“Maybe residents will think twice before driving a distance to purchase cigarettes,” she said.
Public health researchers applauded Westminster’s proposal, but were unable to say whether such an unusual approach might help stem tobacco use because it has not been tried elsewhere.
“When we talk to smokers in Massachusetts and across the nation, 80 percent say they want to quit, and 50 percent try every year,” said Dr. Michael Fiore, professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin and director of the school’s Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention.
Still, Fiore said he is optimistic the sales ban would prove to be “a helping hand to get this monkey of tobacco addiction off their back.”