Westminster tobacco ban stirs outrage

Don’t even think about prying cigarettes from their cold, dead hands. The right to smoke, or more properly, the right to consume legal products has roiled Westminster for weeks. The Worcester County town of 7,000 gained national notoriety in October for proposing a first in the country ban on the sale of tobacco products.

The high-profile coverage helped set the stage for the prospect of a rowdy post-Election Day public hearing on the issue. And the good townspeople did not disappoint. About 500 residents turned out to rain their outrage down on the town’s hapless board of health. The board was forced to end its hearing after only 20 minutes. Some residents told the New York Times that guns and religion would be the next targets.

 

Health isn’t the issue in Westminster, the exercise of civil liberties is. The uproar is the product of fears surrounding freedom of choice in a political climate where people can be quick to pounce on anything that offers the tiniest shards of evidence that American democracy is under assault.

Consider the response of editorial writers who came down hard on town officials. The Washington Times argues that “oppressive politicians can be worse than the evil weed” and suggests that “the only check on a runaway board is the simple power to recall board members…”

The Sentinel and Enterprise wonders where such bans would stop. Alcohol? Potato chips? Candy bars? The Lowell Sun gave residents demerits for conduct that was less than civil, but applauded them nonetheless: “Finally, citizens in at least one corner of Massachusetts are rising up against government tramping on our rights to do what we want, when we want and how we want.”

The Westminster Board of Health meant well.  Tobacco companies are enjoying a renaissance in the marketplace, courtesy of new products like e-cigarettes. Public health officials across the country see that the battle has been joined anew in a fight that they’d thought won.

The town board aimed to restrict access to tobacco products, including newly popular candy-flavored ones and e-cigarettes that tempt young people. The board may have even looked to CVS, which no longer sells tobacco products in its stores, for inspiration.  But CVS is a private company that can devise its own policies; the Westminster Board of Health has to bend to the will of the people

Other municipalities such as Worcester that are considering how to strengthen anti-tobacco regulations must now consider the Westminster case. The town’s response suggests that most communities are less likely to resort to outright bans.

There is much irony in the effort to ban a legal product, considering what is on the horizon in two years. The Westminster revolt gives some inkling of the passions that might be stirred as Massachusetts moves toward the inevitable showdown with legalizing a banned product, marijuana.

Legal marijuana proponents are gearing up for a campaign to get a question on the 2016 ballot, a move that is likely to get Governor-elect Charlie Baker and other municipal officials who oppose legalization very hot and bothered indeed.

Meanwhile, with the possibility of a recall still hanging over their heads, some speculate the Westminster Board of Health may be happy to forget all about tobacco bans and move on to some less controversial matter like scheduling flu shot clinics.

Some other locale will have to step up for the first in the nation honors. “This ban is going to happen somewhere, sometime,” a local doctor told the New York Times. “But probably not in Westminster.”

GABRIELLE GURLEY

BEACON HILL

Gov. Deval Patrick‘s administration has advertised job openings for dozens of managerial positions since Election Day, raising hackles among Charlie Baker‘s camp.

INTERNATIONAL

One of the five people killed yesterday in a gruesome early morning attack at a Jerusalem synagogue, Mosheh Twersky, was a highly-regarded rabbi with deep Boston connections.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Marshfield residents have forced a meeting of the School Committee to try to get the members to reverse their vote that labels the end-of-year respite as “holiday vacation” rather than “Christmas vacation.”

Brockton Police Chief Robert Hayden has canceled special crime and safety patrols amid a funding dispute between the mayor and City Council over the department’s overtime budget.

Members of the Hanson Board of Health have filed a federal suit against a resident who angrily flipped a table over on members during a meeting two years ago and a former town administrator who the suit says encouraged the table-flipper to attend the meeting and intimidate board members.

Boston officials say there is no conflict between talk of building a temporary homeless shelter on city-owned land alongside Interstate 93 that the Kraft family is eyeing as a potential site for a soccer stadium.

CASINOS

The state gambling commission is likely to ban casinos from imposing liens on the homes of those who run up gambling debts. The commission chairman said the panel is also likely to adopt regulations allowing gamblers to preset limits on their own losses, despite strong opposition from the casino industry.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy won his race for reelection by running as a Democrat (he didn’t run away from raising taxes) and says that’s the only way members of his party can prevail, The Daily Beast reports.

Scot Lehigh says it was a mistake for Elizabeth Warren to sign on with Harry Reid‘s “tired leadership team” in the Senate, arguing it will clip her populist wings.

Senate Democrats block a bill that would allow the Keystone XL pipeline, possibly hurting Sen. Mary Landrieu’s chances for reelection, Time reports.

David Weigel notes that the Republican takeover of Congress seems to have erased any memories of the blowback they endured the last time they shut down the government, because they’re once again racing in that direction.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Globe reports that Nataxis Global Asset Management, a huge Boston investment firm, quietly paid a seven-figure settlement to a former top manager to silence her allegations that her dismissal was connected to rebuffing advances from company CEO John Hailer.

EDUCATION

Read the Boston FinCom report on how money raised by renting out Boston Public Schools buses and facilities was funneled into a nonprofit and used for unusual expenses.

WBUR brings together five students who went through busing in Boston to talk about their experience.

Charter schools in Boston are much more likely to hand out suspensions than traditional public schools, according to new report.

HEALTH CARE

Today is World Toilet Day, a declaration by the United Nations which may cause tittering but is meant as a serious attempt to improve public health and safety by pointing out more people on Earth have access to cell phones than toilets.

Steward Health Care System has pushed back the scheduled closing of Quincy Medical Center to February to comply with state law requiring 90 days notice as Attorney General Martha Coakley says she is looking into the closure to see if it violates an agreement the for-profit company signed with her office.

A Tufts research center says the average cost of bringing a new drug to market is more than $2.5 billion, dwarfing the $802 million figure the center reported in its last major report on this issue, in 2003.

TRANSPORTATION

The heavy and positive response to an online survey suggests North Andover residents want a commuter bus into Boston, the Eagle-Tribune reports.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Greater Boston takes a look at why it takes so long to clean up the hundreds of Superfund sites in Massachusetts.

Boston-based First Wind has been acquired for $2.4 billion, a sign of growing confidence in the wind energy sector.

An agreement has been reached between Fall River and state environmental officials and property owners to cap contaminated land around the now-closed landfill in the Fall River Industrial Park.

Joe Orlando of Gloucester is the latest fisherman profile as part of the Gloucester Times Fish Tales series. Orlando had to lay off his own son.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

A Pew Research study indicates Massachusetts is one of a handful of states where the prison population is expected to decline slightly over the next four years, Governing reports.

A special Massachusetts commission urges an end to mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses. Ralph Gants, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, makes a similar pitch during a visit to Worcester

Federal judge William Young urges officials at the Bureau of Prisons to jail former Probation commissioner John O’Brien and aide Elizabeth Tavares near their homes, CommonWealth reports.

FBI Director James Comey visits Boston to focus on choking off the supply of heroin, the Salem News reports.

A woman being held on drug possession charges in Brockton Superior Court allegedly tried to escape by climbing into the ceiling while shackled in the holding area but came crashing back through into the courtroom as she tried to crawl to freedom.

A denim dustup led to a summonsing of the municipal constabulary and disrupted all the investment chatter and grousing about prep school tuition bills at the Weston Golf Club.

MEDIA

ICYMI: A report on John Henry, the man who lied to Worcester.

A Seattle Times partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network focuses on what works in education, the Nieman Journalism Lab reports.