As in most other states, Massachusetts lawmakers’ approach to tobacco products long has been to encourage an ever-growing proliferation of rules limiting what residents can buy and what stores can sell. But new legislation introduced recently in the state House of Representatives actually might succeed in reversing that trend.
House Bill 1158—filed by state Reps. Paul K Frost, R-Auburn, and Kimberly N. Ferguson, R-Holden—would prohibit local boards of health from banning the sale of otherwise legal tobacco products. Unique among the tobacco bills heard recently at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Public Health, H. 1158 is not aimed at restricting where and when Massachusetts residents are allowed to smoke. If passed, the legislation would mark a significant departure from the current practice of allowing each of the commonwealth’s 351 city and town boards of health to create and enforce tobacco-product ordinances.
The argument to move toward statewide oversight is compelling. A patchwork of local regulation means that businesses are subject to unnecessarily onerous compliance burdens that vary greatly from town to town. The Town of Amesbury, which is located in the northeast corner of Massachusetts on the New Hampshire border, has no retail tobacco policies in place. But drive two hours west of Boston to the busy college town of Amherst, and it’s a very different story. There, residents contend with a minimum legal sale age of 21, a ban on the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies, packaging restrictions for cheap cigars and restrictions on the sale of flavored products.
Putting the state in the driver’s seat would mean that one set of regulations would be handed down from one body rather than the 351 city and town boards that currently set their own guidelines. This is particularly noteworthy given the recent proliferation of local laws across the country that unfairly target newer, lower-risk products like e-cigarettes, imposing vaping bans and flavor bans that can serve to discourage smokers from switching to these options that evidence suggests are 95 percent safer than traditional combustible cigarettes.
Testifying in support of the measure before the public health committee was Dennis Lane, a longtime Quincy business owner and executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Tobacco Retailing—composed of members of the New England Convenience Store Association, the New England Service Station and Auto Repair Association, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and the National Association of Tobacco Outlets. Drawing on his experience as a retailer, Lane detailed the shortcomings of the current municipal control model. He noted that having each city and town set its own guidelines around the sale and purchase of legal tobacco products creates a tangled web of law that presents an enforcement challenge for retailers and employees.
Lane also observed the negative impact tobacco product bans can have on local businesses: “Every product has a market basket. When a person comes into my store to pick up a peach cigar on his way home from work, he’ll possibly pick up the Patriot Ledger or the Boston Globe, or perhaps a cup of coffee or a gallon of milk.” Forcing people to travel out of their way to purchase the products they are accustomed to buying locally unnecessarily harms local economies.
With state legislators looking to increase the smoking age to 21 across the commonwealth, it’s clearly time to move toward regulating the legal sale of tobacco products in a unified manner. Doing so will mean re-examining the power of town boards of health to create laws that wide-ranging public policy implications. H.1158 is a step in that direction, though it is unclear whether it will be given a favorable vote by committee members. Those in favor of commonsense tobacco regulation should hope that it does.
Image by Luis Enrique Torres