Town officials were asked today for comment on the Board of Health’s proposed ban on tobacco sales in that town, and whether they could foresee a similar ban being proposed locally. Board of Health chair Joan Hamlett, also a Tobacco Control Alliance compliance agent, said, “As tobacco agent for 34 towns, all my boards of health were aware and all public health eyes have been on Westminster’s effort, but at this time no other board of health has it on the agenda.
“As director of the alliance, we will be promoting the current draft youth access regulation that includes the pharmacy ban, e-cigarette restrictions, wrap ban, and cigar pricing restrictions, unless a board of health requests otherwise.”
Hamlett added, “As chair of the Board of Health, I believe at this time our board has recently implemented the best possible policies in place that fit our community needs in working to reduce youth access to tobacco.”
Selectboard chair Stephen Raymond responded, saying, “I do not think that Delano would follow the Westminster model. I would not support a ban. I, personally, think that we would be overstepping…it is a legal product and it is up to each individual to use tobacco or not.”
Offering his comment, Selectman Lee Chauvette said, “I personally feel that the effort to ban the sale of tobacco by any board is government interfering with business. Tobacco, even though a known health risk, is certainly a legal product that adults can make a choice about. I do not feel that a regulation as strong as this helps businesses. Residents will simply go elsewhere. I would not speculate on this type of activity being brought forth in Athol at this time. However, I can publicly state that I personally would not support such an endeavor.”
Selectman Alan Dodge echoed similar sentiments, saying, “Westminster’s board of health is over reaching with such an outrageous proposal. I can see a business like CVS, which just stopped selling cigarettes, but to force a ban on business is ridiculous. The board of health in Athol, I know, would be more responsible and take all of its citizens concerns into there thought process. I, for one, would not support such a ban. And I am not a smoker.”
Dodge added, “If a product is legal to sell, then any business should have the right to sell it.” Selectman Anthony Brighenti weighed in, commenting, “Tobacco is a legal substance. What is next? Candy, soda, red meat? Let people make their own choices.”
Brighenti added that, while he would oppose such a proposal locally, he can foresee Athol possibly pursuing such a ban and noted “probably more towns will find themselves in similar circumstances. There seems to be an attitude in some parts of this country that flies in the face of the Bill of Rights, the right of ‘the people’ to have choices.”
Brighenti said he would not support a local proposal banning the sale of tobacco products and he “absolutely” feels such a ban is an example of a policy-setting board overstepping its bounds with regard to the legal sales of a legal product which people have the right to purchase and use.
Town Manager Shaun Suhoski and Selectwoman and State Representative-elect Susannah Whipps Lee did not offer comment prior to press time today.
Commenting on the public hearing held Wednesday on the Westminster proposal, Hamlett said, “The board of health prepared for a large crowd by moving the meeting to the school gym. They prepared for crowd management by working with the fire department and the Wachusett Medical Reserve Corps to assist with parking, seating, sign-in, etc.
“Closer to the hearing, several written comments came into the board of health and were published online, including one who said to bring guns and knives to the hearing to make ‘them’ answer questions. It became clear that police presence was necessary for security. There was a conference call with the chair to consider postponing the hearing and an extending the written comment period. The chair declined. She felt that Westminster residents, while angry, could respectfully address the board with their concerns. At the hearing, 30 minutes before it started, a man had to be removed. It became unruly quick.”
Commenting on the unruliness, she said the anger expressed by some was not surprising. She said she had suggested postponing the public hearing because of comments being received prior to the hearing online and via mail that were cause for concern. She added in all her time in tobacco control she has never before felt the need for a police presence.
However, Hamlett said she is surprised by the attention that the issue has drawn with regard to overseas news outlets contacting her for interviews, saying today Al Jazeera Television is among them.
Hamlett said she does not endorse the Westminster effort, but does not necessarily believe it is wrong. “I just don’t think it was appropriate at this time,” she said, adding that perhaps the draft proposal should be reconsidered and revised, and enough time given for all public input to be received and considered.