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WESTMINSTER, Mass. — Municipalities in California usually lead the charge with regulations that soon spread across the country. However, a small Massachusetts town could become the first in the country to ban sales of all tobacco products within its limits.
The Westminster Board of Health is meeting Wednesday night to discuss "the presentation of products aimed at youth," according to the agenda. The 6:30 p.m. meeting, which was moved to the Westminster Elementary School to accommodate the expected number of attendees, will hear public comment for two hours.
"To my knowledge, it would be the first in the nation to enact a total ban," said Thomas Carr, director of national policy at the American Lung Association. "We commend the town for doing it."
Town health agent Elizabeth Swedberg said a ban seemed like a sensible solution to a vexing problem, according to The Associated Press.
"The tobacco companies are really promoting products to hook young people," she said. "The board was getting frustrated trying to keep up with this."
Citing a report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Swedberg said that if tobacco use continues unabated, 5.6 million American children who are younger than 18 today will die prematurely because of smoking. Change, she said, "has to start somewhere."
Westminster retailer Brian Vincent, however, noted that tobacco makes up more than 5 percent of sales at his family-owned Vincent's Country Store. A quarter of his customers purchase tobacco, he told the news organization, and while there, they often pick up a gallon of milk or one of the fresh-baked maple-candied bacon chocolate chip cookies that are displayed by the checkout.
"It's going to send business five minutes this way or five minutes that way — no one's going to quit," Vincent said.
Encouraged by the New England Convenience Store Association, Vincent has been asking his customers to sign a petition against the proposal. He has gathered more than 800 signatures so far, and other merchants are on track to deliver hundreds more to town officials this week, according to the AP.
David Sutton, a spokesman for Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc., called the proposal a "bad policy" that will harm local employers.
"We believe businesses should be able to choose which products they carry," Sutton said. "If the ban were to be implemented, adult tobacco and e-vapor consumers could shift their purchases to neighboring stores. The proposed regulations, if enacted, would fundamentally alter these businesses and would likely cost Westminster jobs."
Swedberg said the Board of Health hopes that if it enacts the regulation, loyal customers will support local businesses by buying more non-tobacco products. And she thinks stores could see another benefit: "For people who are trying to quit, it could be a better place for them to shop because they wouldn't be confronted with tobacco."