Massachusetts town weighs nation’s 1st ban on tobacco sales
WESTMINSTER, Mass. — The cartons of Marlboros, cans of Skoal and packs of Swisher Sweets are hard to miss stacked near the entrance of Vincent’s Country Store, but maybe not for much longer.
All tobacco products could become contraband if local health officials get their way.
This sleepy central Massachusetts town of 7,700 has become an improbable battleground in America’s tobacco wars. On Wednesday, the Board of Health will hear public comment on a proposed regulation that could make Westminster the first municipality in the United States to ban sales of all tobacco products within town lines.
“To my knowledge, it would be the first in the nation to enact a total ban,” said Thomas Carr, director of national policy at the American Lung Association. “We commend the town for doing it.”
Town health agent Elizabeth Swedberg said a ban seems like a sensible solution.
“The tobacco companies are really promoting products to hook young people,” she said, pointing to 69-cent bubblegum-flavored cigars, electronic cigarettes and a new form of dissolvable smokeless tobacco that resembles Tic Tac candies.
Citing a report from the surgeon general, Swedberg said that if tobacco use continues unabated, 5.6 million American children who are younger than 18 today will die prematurely because of smoking. Change, she said, “has to start somewhere.”
Brian Vincent would rather it not start with his family-owned grocery. Tobacco products, he said, make up more than 5 percent of sales.
A quarter of his customers buy tobacco, Vincent said. While they’re there, they often pick up a gallon of milk or one of the fresh-baked maple-candied bacon chocolate chip cookies.
Encouraged by the New England Convenience Store Association, Vincent has been asking customers to sign a petition against the proposal. He has gathered more than 800 signatures so far, and other merchants are on track to deliver hundreds more to town officials this week.
David Sutton, a spokesman for Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc., owner of the nation’s biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, called the proposal a “bad policy” that will harm employers.
“We believe businesses should be able to choose which products they carry,” Sutton said. “If the ban were to be implemented, adult tobacco and e-vapor consumers could shift their purchases to neighboring stores. The proposed regulations, if enacted, would fundamentally alter these businesses and would likely cost Westminster jobs.”
So many people have called Town Hall about the proposal, the Board of Health — whose meetings about septic system updates and mosquito control rarely attract an audience — will hold the public hearing in an elementary school cafeteria rather than in its usual second-floor conference room.
Colleen Conner, who pops into Vincent’s nearly every day to pick up a pack of American Spirits, is among those who signed the petition. Should the measure pass, she said, she’ll drive 25 miles north to New Hampshire and buy her cigarettes there in bulk.
“When you’re a smoker, you’ll quit when you’re ready, not because someone told you to,” she said. “I think it’s going to hurt the store — and I love the store.”