Liberty wins in Massachusetts ‘Nanny State’ tobacco battle


By M.D. Kittle |

Chalk one up for liberty.

Smokers and nonsmokers alike in Westminster, Mass., came together to push back a move by the town’s Board of Health to ban the sale of all tobacco and nicotine products within the city limits.

SMOKE AND FIRE: Hundreds turned out to a public hearing earlier this month on a health board proposal to ban the sale of all tobacco products in Westminster, Mass. The community’s opposition was so strong the board quickly voted to rescind the proposal.

This community of about 7,700 residents in north-central Massachusetts, in a founding state known for revolt against government overreach, took on the Nanny State and won.

“This really wasn’t just about selling tobacco. This was about a board that said, ‘We’re going to do what’s right for you.’ That’s what really fired everyone up,” said Joe Serio, owner of Westminster Pharmacy, located in the town’s center.

The pharmacy is one of eight retailers in Westminster that sells tobacco products

Dozens of media outlets descended on the small town in recent days, as Westminster looked poised to become the first community in the country to prohibit the sale of tobacco and e-cigarette products.

As the New York Times put it:

The health board felt it had a moral obligation to restrict young people’s access to tobacco. But at a public hearing a week ago, 500 people showed up, almost all of them to protest the proposed ban. The hearing became so raucous that the board called it off just 20 minutes after it began.

Community members waved flags and joined in an impromptu version of God Bless America after the board moved to shut down the meeting.

“It just kind of sent tingles through me just watching this,” said Jeff Steinbock, a board member of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets and owner of a Milwaukee tobacco store.

On Wednesday, the Westminster board voted 2-1 to withdraw the proposal, noting the clear will of the townspeople. Board of Health chairwoman Andrea Crete voted against rescinding the measure.

A majority of the resistance movement was nonsmokers, people who have supported restrictions on smoking in public places but who felt that retailers had the right to sell a legal product.

“What really fired them up was that the Board of Health was saying we will take your public input but we will make the decision,” Serio said. “The term that came up frequently was ‘Nanny State.’”

Massachusetts law, Chapter 111, Section 31, gives local, autonomous boards of health the right to make “reasonable” decisions in the public interest. Serio said most people in Westminster believe the board has made appropriate decisions on smoking and tobacco restrictions, but the chairwoman’s push to ban the sale of a legal product was unreasonable and unworkable.

He said the ban would have been devastating on the tobacco retailers.

“It would have meant that customers would have to stop and shop before they came back to Westminster, or left and shopped elsewhere,” Serio said, noting the broader retail options in the bigger cities surrounding Westminster.

Despite declining sales in an increasingly tobacco-free world, the Bay State hauls in more than $500 million per year in cigarette taxes.

Anti-tobacco crusaders said they hoped to make it harder for children to access to a deadly product.

“This sends a clear message to residents that this is a bad product,” D.J. Wilson, director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s Tobacco Control Technical Assistance Program, said of the ban in a story published in the Boston Globe.

But the vast majority of Westminster residents rejected the idea of the restriction, asserting that adults should have the right to choose, and businesses should have the right to their livelihood.

“It’s all about personal freedoms all about democracy in action it really is heartwarming to see it,” Steinbock said.