Updated 5:43 p.m.
BOSTON — A town in north-central Massachusetts is considering banning the sale of all tobacco products — the first such sweeping measure in the country.
The proposal has Westminster businesses up in arms, while the town's health board says it's concerned about the effects of smoking and minors having access to tobacco products.
At a public hearing tonight, the board of health will hear comments about the proposed ban. The town's health agent, Elizabeth Swedberg, was unavailable for comment today.
In its proposal, the Westminster Board of Health outlined the harmful effects of tobacco, including evidence that it leads to cancer and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The board also said that e-cigarettes could normalize smoking behavior and "serve as a gateway" for ex-smokers to begin smoking again. And the board expressed concern about the allure of tobacco products to minors, saying that despite state laws prohibiting sales to youths under the age of 18, the access to tobacco products by minors is "a major public health problem."
The proposed ban would prohibit the sale of any product containing, made or derived from tobacco or nicotine that is intended for consumption. Should the ban move forward, first-time violators could be fined $300, and have board of health permits suspended or revoked for further violations.
The American Lung Association and the Massachusetts Public Health Association each said they do not have a position on this specific proposal.
Tami Gouveia, the executive director of the advocacy group Tobacco Free Mass, called the Westminster proposal an important approach to protecting public health. She said boards of health in all communities should look at different policies and approaches to keep their residents healthy.
"It’s important for us to be taking a real hard look at that and to continue to find ways to reduce youth use of cigarettes as well as adult use," Gouveia said. "When we learned that lead was dangerous when people were exposed and when children were exposed, we removed lead from paint and we removed it from gasoline."
Gouveia also said the Westminster proposal could help those struggling with nicotine addiction and make it easier for them to quit smoking when they realize the store they frequent can no longer sell tobacco products.
Opponents of the ban say it would hurt local businesses by driving customers — and profits — to neighboring communities.
"It’s hard to understand the point of that [proposal] because they are going to give money to another town, they’re going to crush the business here," Sula Mello, the manager of Westminster Convenience Store on State Road, said in a phone interview.
Mello said tobacco and alcohol are what bring people into her convenience store. She, like other opponents, also expressed frustration that the decision is being made for the public by a three-person board. And she doesn't believe the ban on tobacco sales would help people quit smoking.
"I used to smoke, I quit 14 years ago and I can tell you for sure that was my decision," Mello said. "Nobody can decide for you to stop smoking or not because it’s something that is very hard for you to do it."
Brian Vincent, who owns Vincent's Country Store on Main Street, said his store sells about $100,000 a year in tobacco products, but it's not a large percentage of his overall sales. He said, however, that his tobacco customers often pick up other items and he believes the proposed ban would greatly hinder sales on the other items that people purchase with their tobacco.
"While they’re in those other towns they’ll say, ‘Hey, why don’t I fill up my gas tank while I’m here?' " Vincent said. "'Why don’t I get a takeout pizza for dinner while I’m here [or] go to the hardware store while I’m here?' It could go on and on. It’s gonna hurt more than just tobacco retailers, it’s gonna hurt essentially every business."
Vincent has collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition against the proposed ban. (The population of Westminster is 7,765, according to the town.) He is also holding a rally at 4 p.m. outside his store ahead of tonight's meeting.
"I’m hoping that enough people will stand up against this with intelligent points being made and comments and opinion that this is not a good fit," Vincent said. "And hopefully the board of health will throw this out and go back to the town hall with their tail between their legs, so to say."
The public hearing on the proposed ban will be held at 6:30 p.m. at Westminster Elementary School. The town is also accepting written comments on the proposal until Dec. 1.
-- Here's an Associated Press video report on the proposal: