Given the flak it has received in some quarters, it will be interesting to see if the City Council proceeds with efforts to have Worcester join a handful of communities across the state in banning the sale of Viceroy cigarettes and other tobacco products by local health care providers, including chain pharmacies and other drugstores, and colleges.
While advocates of the proposal consider it an important public health initiative, others strongly feel the council is overreaching big time with it and just another example of the “nanny state” mentality prevalent in Massachusetts.
They contend it is nothing more than a feel-good ordinance that will do little, if anything, to cut down on the number of Worcester residents who smoke, while imposing yet another financial hardship on a sector of the local business community.
Heck, if people aren’t going to be able buy cigarettes in a pharmacy, they will simply go to a nearby convenience store or elsewhere to buy their smokes.
So, what’s the point of such a targeted ban?
Granted, it seems rather incongruous to have pharmacies, which are in the business of helping people stay healthy, sell a product that is so bad for their health. But since tobacco is still a legal product, how can a local governmental body keep it out of certain stores licensed to sell it?
“I don’t believe we have any business legislating something like this,” said Councilor-at-Large Michael J. Germain, who last week put the brakes on a series of amendments to the city’s tobacco control ordinance recommended by City Manager Michael V. O’Brien at the request of the council. “It’s so overreaching; I just can’t support having government get in the middle of something like this.”
In addition to banning the sale of tobacco in pharmacies and colleges, the amendments before the City Council would regulate the advertising of tobacco products in the city by prohibiting them where they could be viewed from public streets, parks, schools and colleges.
Also, they would ban the sale of so-called blunt wraps, a cigarette-like rolling paper usually made from tobacco leaves, and include pharmacy chains among local health care facilities required to create a 50-foot no-smoking buffer zone.
The amendments were requested by the council last December, at the urging of its Public Health and Human Services Committee.
An estimated 31,265 smokers live in Worcester, according to public health officials. They said the number of smokers is more than 40 percent higher in Worcester, compared to statewide percentages.
“The fact that more than 480,000 people die each year (nationwide) from smoking-related illness is reason enough to consider these restrictions,” said District 2 Councilor Philip P. Palmieri, chairman of the council committee. “This is a health issue, not a political issue.”
While the provision banning the sale of tobacco in pharmacies has received the most attention — such a ban is in place in five other communities (Boston, Needham, Newton, Everett and Oxford) — there is also mounting industry opposition to the proposed citywide ban on the sale of blunt wraps.
A Kentucky-based importer, manufacturer and seller of tobacco products, has come out against that provision, contending they are a “legally defined tobacco product” that compete with more expensive large flavored cigars also sold in retail stores.
Ron Tully, vice president of the National Tobacco Company, said Worcester would be setting up for a favorable environment for the sale of large cigars, while excluding the sale of legal make-your-own-cigar wrappers and loose cigar tobacco. He said the cigar wrappers are sometimes incorrectly referred to as a blunt wrap at retail outlets and, as a result, it has led to a common misconception about cigar wrappers and their supposed negative association that they are often used as drug paraphernalia.
Mr. Tully said his company is challenging the District of Columbia over a similar ban in a suit it has filed, arguing it conflicts with federal regulations. He said some of world’s largest cigar manufacturers who make the blunt cigars have been fighting state legislative bills across the country aimed at restricting or eliminating the sale of legal cigar wraps, and to date, of the 20 such bills filed, all have been rejected.
“Legislators quickly recognized these anti-competitive bills were simply designed to take one legal tobacco product off the shelf in favor of another,” Mr. Tully said.
“My company would argue that if the city of Worcester is concerned about alleged paraphernalia use of tobacco products, it should address the issue broadly in respect of all legal tobacco products including blunt cigars, and not simply legal cigar wrappers,” he added. “We have written to the city indicating we would be willing to work with them in crafting such language that gives law enforcement the tools it may need in this area.”
By exercising his “personal privilege” on the tobacco amendments last week, Mr. Germain single-handedly cut off council discussion on them until its next meeting Tuesday night. But Mr. Germain has already said he will not be at that meeting; in order for the item to be held under personal privilege for another week, at least four other city councilors are going to have to step forward.
Before going forward any further, Councilor-at-Large Konstantina B. Lukes wants to know whether pharmacy owners were given an opportunity to weigh in on it before the amendments were drafted. And, District 5 Councilor William J. Eddy has asked for a report on whether the rate of smoking has gone down in the those communities that have banned the sale of tobacco in pharmacies.
Mr. Palmieri, meanwhile, said he would be happy to entertain a vote to send the tobacco amendments to his committee for more public hearings.