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.”
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