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Boston Could Pass Tough New Anti-Smoking Rules

This article is more than 10 years old.

Boston will have some of the toughest anti-smoking rules in the country if the city's Board of Health approves new limits on tobacco sales Thursday.

The proposed regulations would ban the sale of tobacco products at pharmacies, drug stores, colleges and universities. It would also shut down cigar bars, and it would prohibit smoking on workplace patios and loading docks.

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer visited one of Boston's cigar bars for this story.

(SOUND OF CIGAR BAR)

On Hanover Street in the North End, you have to walk down a flight of stairs and into a basement room with brick walls and heavy curtains to reach Stanza dei Sigari. That's Italian for "room of cigars." It's loud and dark and smoky. On this weeknight, it's mostly filled with men. One of them is Tim Kay, who's there with a group of coworkers. He says he knows tobacco can be unsafe, but moderation is the key.

KAY: I think alcohol is fundamentally dangerous. I think you could ride a motorcycle and that would be dangerous. So, I mean, people choose to make choices. I mean, if you have a cigar or two a year or a month it's no more dangerous than having a glass of wine every once in a while or taking a ride in a sports car.

Barbara Ferrer disagrees. She heads the Boston Public Health Commission, which will vote this afternoon on a proposal to outlaw Stanza dei Sigari and other cigar bars. She says tobacco is unsafe in any amount.

FERRER: This is a product like a gun or like alcohol that should in fact be heavily regulated.

Ferrer and other city health officials say because tobacco is so closely linked to disease and death, its sale should be strictly limited. They especially want to keep cigarettes and other tobacco products away from teenagers and college students.

FERRER: It's so dangerous. It has no redeeming value. We really should do everything we can to protect young people from taking up this habit.

If the new rules pass, cigar bars and hookah bars, where people can smoke flavored tobacco through water pipes, would have to close in five years. Tobacco sales could also be banned within sixty days at health care and educational institutions. Those include chain pharmacies such as CVS and public or private colleges. Smoking would also be prohibited at hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts. Jon Hurst says the proposed regulations go too far. He's president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

HURST: If you have customers that want to buy a legal product in a safe and low-cost environment, why can't they buy them in a pharmacy? Particularly in this economy do we really want government to be saying you can't operate in this way when you have customers that want to be served in this way?

Hurst also points out that drug stores sell many other products that don't always promote good health.

HURST: Prescriptions, drugs are just a portion of what people go in there and buy. They also go in there and buy food, they buy candy. Not all of it is particularly healthy.

But Ferrer of the Boston Public Health Commission says tobacco is uniquely unhealthy.

FERRER: You know, eating cookies in and of itself — neither addictive nor, in moderation, dangerous. Tobacco, unfortunately, is always dangerous. I mean, two cigarettes a day is dangerous. There's no threshold of safety with tobacco.

City health officials says cigar bars are being targeted to protect their employees from secondhand smoke. But back at Stanza dei Sigari in the North End, customer Jeff Bartlett says cigar bar workers know what they're getting into when they take their jobs.

(SOUND OF CIGAR BAR)

BARTLETT: Well, I think they come into this job knowing that that's the environment that they're going to be working in, and they accept that job willingly... I mean, why would you be a garbage man if you hate the stink of garbage?

The rationale for a ban at drugstores and colleges is that selling tobacco isn't compatible with their missions of promoting good health. But Hurst says people won't stop smoking if tobacco sales are banned at pharmacies. They'll just go other places to buy cigarettes, such as gas stations, mini marts, and online.

(SOUND OF GOVERNMENT CENTER TRAFFIC)

That's what Gary Crossman says he would do if the CVS at Government Center couldn't sell tobacco. Yesterday morning he bought a pack of cigarettes here, where cartons of smokes are behind the counter right below shelves of cold medicines.

CROSSMAN: Oh, it would definitely inconvenience me, but smoking is an addiction and if you're going to feed that addiction you're going to get your cigarettes no matter where you got to go.

But city health officials say if tobacco is available at fewer places, then fewer people will take up smoking — and fewer people will be battling addiction and disease.

This program aired on December 11, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Sacha Pfeiffer Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.

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