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NEEDHAM, Mass. -- Following a controversial public hearing on recent changes to town tobacco regulations, it remains illegal for vendors in Needham, Mass. to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 19. Other recent changes to regulations, including the increase in the fee for a permit to sell tobacco from $25 to $500 and the establishment of a minimum age of 18 for clerks who sell tobacco, also remain in place.
It remains unclear, however, whether all decisions are final and whether anyone will further challenge any of the policy changes. "This is an issue our association will look at further," said Diane O'Donoghue, government relations director for the New England Association of Convenience stores, speaking of the increase in the purchase age for tobacco. "There may be legal problems with the regulation."
Alan Stern, chairman of the Board of Health, was vague about how the board would use the information garnered at the hearing. "We're taking everything under advisement," Stern said. He the hearing to get public feedback on the decisions the board made in February, because he had received feedback from the Board of Selectmen that the hearing at which the changes were made had not been adequately publicized.
Stern said that although the board would have to sit down and review public testimony on the subject, he thought that support for many of the regulation changes was strong enough that he felt comfortable with the decisions the board had made. Board of Health Vice Chairman Peter Connolly indicated later that he was a little more open to re-examining some of the regulations.
"I'm not sure it's worth our while to increase the age restriction, until such time as we have a better relationship with the people who sell [tobacco]," Connolly said, explaining that the Board of Health needs to educate vendors about effectively enforcing purchase age minimums. "We need to enhance their ability to make sure kids who are underage can't purchase tobacco."
Connolly said the state's recent withdrawal of Tobacco Control Program money played a significant role in his thinking. He also said he continues to approve of the permit fee increase, which has been the other most controversial recent regulation change. Not only could it help to pay for tobacco enforcement in town, if it was properly allocated by Town Meeting or by the Board of Selectmen, but it is also similar to fees in some other towns.
Prior to the hearing, the board received a half-dozen letters expressing support of the regulation changes, including support for the increase in purchase age and support for the permit fee hike. The only two letters from opponents of the regulations were from O'Donoghue and from Mary Ellen Herd, executive director of the Needham Business Association.
"While we are not opposed to an increase, we feel that $25 to $500 is too large an increase in one increment," Herd said, urging the board to reconsider.