Board of Health Tables Decision On Flavored Tobacco Ban

Following Monday night’s meeting, the Board of Health has left the fate of a new Westford business in the balance, as well as the question of whether flavored cigarettes are targeted at children.

After a discussion on amendments to Westford’s Tobacco Regulations, the board unanimously moved to table any decision following concerns over the outright prohibition of flavored cigarettes outside of smoking bars or adult-only retail tobacco stores; defined as stores where only cigarette products are sold.

Currently Westford prohibits anyone under 21 from buying cigarettes, but prohibiting anyone from buying flavored cigarettes outside of those rare circumstances was too much for Anna Bettencourt, a representative of VERC Enterprises.

VERC owns a chain of Gulf gas stations, including the one in Westford at corner of Boston and Littleton roads. To Bettencourt, the move seemed unfair given her statement that in the past 18 years, the Westford Gulf has had only one tobacco violation. That incident occurred just after the store opened and since then the company has had in-house private shoppers testing clerks to see if they sell tobacco products to anyone under 21 or forget to card anyone under 27.

Bettencourt also noted that many other nearby towns allow 18 year olds to buy cigarettes and nearby in New Hampshire, regulations are even more lax.

“We’re very serious about selling alcohol and tobacco products,” said Bettencourt. “Our livelihood depends on following policies in place.”

She also questioned why flavored alcohol can be sold at nearby liquor stores, with Board of Health Member Susan Hanly replying that drinking in moderation is not deadly while there is no such thing as smoking in moderation.

A man in the audience, Sean Blanchette, took offense to that statement after replying to Hanly that his grandfather died due to alcoholism and Hanly apologized for her comment and clarified that drinking alcohol in excess can also be deadly.

Bettencourt and others in the audience continued to confront the board, with Bettencourt raising the ire of Board of Health Chairman Zac Cataldo, who strongly disagreed with Bettencourt’s statement that tobacco companies do not target children as customers.

At one point, Bettencourt asked if the public hearing was just a formality, but the board was not done with testimony regarding the subject.

Sean Blanchette (left) and Tom Patel (right) listen to Westford Health Agent Rae Dick on Monday, March 14

Sean Blanchette (left) and Tom Patel (right) listen to Westford Health Agent Rae Dick on Monday, March 14

Tom Patel, the owner of a new electronic cigarette store at Westford Plaza called Mad Vapes, told the board that if this amendment occurred he believed his store would be forced to close despite the fact that it was just under a month old.

When asked, Patel told the board that he was unaware of the town’s tobacco regulations prior to setting up his business outside of the fact that individuals under 21 could not buy tobacco products. He also told the board that he routinely cards anyone that appears under 27, but he was not aware of the proposed amendments until a Health Department staff member alerted him to the discussion on Monday.

Patel offered two other reasons why closing his store would not lower smoking among children.

First, he noted the rise of online tobacco sellers, mainly from overseas. Patel noted that these groups only required a credit card and ignored the need for photo identification.

Blanchette confirmed this as well as Patel’s claim that these groups often do not care about the proper ratios of flavored liquid, also known as “juice,” in their shipments, causing Blanchette’s roommate to become ill.

At that point, the two began to jointly testify to the board, with Blanchette agreeing with Patel’s second claim: electronic cigarettes can help smokers of regular cigarettes kick the habit.

Blanchette told the board that he had been smoking since he was 12, but since he discovered electronic cigarettes, his addiction has diminished significantly.

Patel and Blanchette also noted that most juices for electronic cigarettes do not include nicotine or tobacco, making it questionable as whether Map Vapes could be considered an adult-only tobacco store.

The three Board of Health members in attendance on Monday, with nameplates.

The three Board of Health members in attendance on Monday, with nameplates.

While members of the board kept their concerns regarding the impact of flavored tobacco on children, Cataldo was concerned on the potential impact to Patel’s business and said he wished to obtain more information on the matter.

Hanly and Michelle Pitoniak-Crawford agreed with Cataldo’s view that additional information would be useful.

The matter was suspended until a future meeting.