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Abington

Health board looking at tougher stance on tobacco industry

Abington health officials are looking to take a tougher stand against the tobacco industry, but opponents in town and beyond say the proposed changes amount to government overreach.

In beefing up its regulations for the first time in nearly 14 years, the town is looking to restrict the sale of electronic cigarettes, cap tobacco licenses, and ban tobacco sales from stores with pharmacies, such as Super Stop & Shop and Walmart.

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Board of Health chairman Bob Manning said a vote may come at the panel’s meeting on Monday, though it is more likely to come in September, followed by a 30-day period before the new regulations would go into effect. He said the board is just doing its job in reviewing and updating health regulations.

Some tobacco and retailer proponents say they are not opposed to keeping e-cigarettes from minors. But they feel the host of regulations proposed in Abington are over the top, and the latest assault by government to regulate and tax the industry out of business.

One member of the health board, a nurse, agrees, saying most of the regulations, which are being pushed by the state Department of Public Health, are unwarranted.

“If the government really wants to take a stand, then they need to ban it, but stop punishing people who smoke,” said Margaret Devlin, a geriatric nurse case manager at a Boston hospital.

Of the new regulations suggested by the state and adopted by a number of communities, Devlin, who says she has not smoked in years, said: “They’ve become extremely silly and juvenile.” One example, she said, is a rule dictating how many inches cigarettes had to be placed behind the counter. Also, she said, the state should not pretend it cares about people’s health while it collects so much in revenue from tobacco taxes. No one is more addicted to cigarettes than the state, she said.

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In preliminary votes in May, a majority of Abington’s Board of Health members indicated they support the tougher rules and are also receptive to a minimum cigar package size or price, and a ban on vending machines, nonresidential roll-your-own machines, “blunts wraps” used to roll tobacco or other fillers, tobacco sales in educational institutions, and self-service displays.

They also favored not allowing a permit if the store has outstanding fines, and requirements for signs related to cessation and nicotine delivery products. They also talked about revising the fines against violators. Current penalties are $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second, with suspension of permit for multiple offenses.

Many of the proposed changes come from a checklist provided by the state, spearheaded by D.J. Wilson, the tobacco control director and public health liaison at the Massachusetts Municipal Association who is working with communities under a contract with the Department of Public Health.

At the top of the checklist is “expand regulations to include nicotine delivery products, including e-cigarettes.”

Without it, Wilson said, youth of any age can buy such products. He said the large tobacco companies are investing in e-cigarettes, which do not contain tobacco and are not FDA-regulated. The battery-powered devices come in colors and flavors, like Peach Schnapps, that he said are meant to entice young people into trying nicotine.

David E. Brennan, president and owner of Smoke & Ashes Tobacco Co., with seven locations in the south suburbs including three in Abington, said he is not opposed to prohibiting those under age 18 from buying e-cigarettes. “I would have absolutely no problem with that,” he said.

However, Brennan, who said he has been in the tobacco business for 30 years, takes issue with a number of the other suggested changes. Although he said he might benefit personally from a cap on tobacco permits, if he is grandfathered, he is opposed to it on principle.

“Tobacco has been around for thousands of years; we think it should be freely bought and sold like any other product,” he said.

Health Agent Sharon White said the town has 30 permits, which may be more than enough for the community of roughly 16,000.

“It’s a lot for a small town,” she said.

Brennan called “ridiculous” the mandate that tobacco stores sell cigars at a minimum price or package size. “There is not a 15-year-old anywhere that is smoking a cigar,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said, an adult would not be able to purchase an inexpensive single cigar. “It is one more step to dismantle my livelihood,” he said.

He said the local moves come as the state has imposed another $1 a pack in taxes on cigarettes, in addition to the $2.51 it already collects.

“You give the government an inch and they take a mile,” he said.

Ryan Kearney, general counsel for the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said his group is opposed to restrictions such as not allowing the sale of tobacco in places with pharmacies.

“If you are trying to curb use of tobacco and send a message that cigarettes aren’t healthy, you don’t get to the problem by banning it at one store,” he said.

He said stores with pharmacies will be at a competitive disadvantage and lose out on the sale of other products to people who are looking to get their shopping done in one stop.

“In our opinion, if you are a retail establishment, and you’re trying to sell a legal product, you should be able to do so,” he said.

Stores in Abington that have pharmacies and sell cigarettes include Walmart and Super Stop & Shop. Target has a pharmacy but does not sell cigarettes.

Suzi Robinson, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, said the company will follow any regulations that are approved.

Wilson said he worked with the town of Easton and expects to be assisting more communities in the fall.

Mark Taylor, health agent for the town of Easton, said officials in March adopted several of the items on the state checklist, including the ban on tobacco sales at pharmacies.

Taylor said it is unfortunate that tobacco, along with the lottery, is one of the biggest money makers for some stores, but said that is not his problem.

“The mission of the Board of Health is public health, not capitalism,” he said.

Some communities statewide have also chosen to raise the age to buy tobacco products to 19; others have raised it to 21, as Canton did on Monday.

A move to raise the age in Easton was rejected.

“Personally, my opinion would be to ban the sale of it completely in town,” Taylor said.

He said the revisions to tobacco regulations are the latest go-round between the tobacco industry and health advocates. “They bob and we weave,’’ he said.

Devlin, meanwhile, said she has taken some criticism for her stand on the matter. She said she is asked how she can be a nurse and be pro-cigarettes.

“I am not pro-cigarettes,” she said. “I am anti-government overreach and overregulating and overtaxing.”

Jean Lang can be reached at jeanmcmillanlang@gmail.com

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