Westminster, Massachusetts, a quaint New England town just one hour west of Boston, was just recently the site of an abnormally heated debate over a possible landmark law pertaining to the sale of tobacco products.
The town’s health board, headed by Chairman Andrea Crete, made it its goal to ban the sale of all tobacco products within town lines known this past month. This would have made little Westminster the first town in the nation to uphold an outright ban on selling all tobacco and nicotine products. It would not have prohibited the use of tobacco, only the selling of it.
The board’s primary reasoning for attempting to enact this ban relates to the recent onslaught of different candy-flavored cigars and childish cigarettes that tobacco companies continue to release. Older addicts are already hooked, so companies turned their efforts toward attracting new lifetime customers in children.
“The Board of Health permitting these establishments to sell these dangerous products that, when used as directed, kill 50 percent of its users, ethically goes against our public health mission," stated Crete. And she certainly has a point.
Rescinding tobacco licenses could potentially benefit those who are trying to quit. If someone walks into a convenience store lined with cigarettes and chew tobacco to do his/her weekly shopping, that person would consistently be confronted with the easy ability to buy a pack or a tin. Removing the products from the shelves removes the temptation to purchase and use them.
The Board of Health’s public hearing on Wednesday, November 12, however, revealed a different sentiment among the citizens. The meeting was held in a local elementary school cafeteria so as to fit the projected number of citizens. All in all, nearly 500 angry citizens squeezed into the room. Andrea Crete was forced to shut down the hearing after just twenty minutes due to the crowd’s unruliness.
One particularly unhappy citizen shouted, “You people make me sick.”
So what was the cause for outrage? The citizens of Westminster seemed to point toward two reasons:
They believed the ban to be an unnecessary check to their freedoms, and they said it would be economically catastrophic to the several tobacco retailers in the town.
“It’s going to send business five minutes this way or five minutes that way,” said a local convenience store owner, Brian Vincent (pictured at left), in an article for Boston.com. “No one’s going to quit.’’
He noted that his business is far more dependent on the sales of tobacco products than it may seem.
“Most people that buy tobacco will grab a cold drink for the road, maybe a scratch ticket, or a bag of chips,” he stated.
Vincent had asked anyone who entered his store to sign a petition against the ban. The petition had at least 1,200 signatures, which account for a large portion of the community of just around 7,300 people.
The community seemed to feel like it was subject to a drastic change that totally neglected its liberty to choose. While the majority of the community does not use tobacco products (only about 17% does), most people still wanted to have the ability to purchase something that is not illegal as they pleased.
This story raises valuable questions about the purpose of government to protect welfare. Is it the Board of Health’s responsibility to remove products that have been shown over and over to kill? Should a town government make a precedent of removing lethal products from its convenience store shelves at the expense of the financial well-being of a small community? Is this ban a necessary evil, in the sense that it limits freedom in order to save the lives of those whose liberty is threatened?
Lung specialists working in a neighboring town, Dr. Corey Saltin and Dr. Payam Aghassi, brought up the point that not only do those who smoke have rights, but so too do those who would inhale secondhand smoke—the rights to clean air and a healthy lifestyle.
While some citizens feared that greater subsequent restrictions would certainly come with this ban, many optimistic people saw the light at the end of the tunnel—a nation free from the crippling effects of tobacco.
After much intense discussion over the issue, the Westminster Town Board of Health decided last night to drop the proposed tobacco ban in the community.
"It is obvious the town is against it and therefore I am against it," said Edward J. Simoncini Jr., one of the town's board members who contributed to the 2-1 vote to kill the proposal.
While banning the sale of tobacco products will not be happening in Westminster, MA anytime soon, it will be interesting to see if other towns will follow suit in attempting to prohibit sales of tobacco products in the future.