A showdown in a town of less than 8,000 people has the makings of a modern-day David v. Goliath story.
This week, health officials and residents in Westminster, a small town in northern Massachusetts, will have a chance to weigh in about a bill that, if enacted, will issue the first ban on the sale of tobacco products — including cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and e-cigarettes — in the country.
Massachusetts has already banned the use of tobacco in work places and more than 100 communities in the state have prohibited smoking in public spaces. Proponents of the latest proposal cite increases in the sale of bubblegum-flavored cigars, electronic cigarettes and dissolvable smokeless tobacco as a threat to the youngest residents’ health, especially since smoking prematurely kills 5.6 million adolescent smokers across the country.
“The tobacco companies are really promoting products to hook young people,” Elizabeth Swedberg, health agent in Westminster, Mass. told the Associated Press. “The board was getting frustrated trying to keep up with this.”
While rates of smoking have declined among American adults in recent years, some people say that R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard — the second and third largest tobacco companies in the nation, respectively — will most likely continue a decades-old business model that thrives on the support of young people, also known as “replacement smokers.”
That strategy often requires tobacco manufacturers to change their products so that they include additional flavoring, sugars, and menthol that experts say mask the true flavor of the tobacco, making the activity more pleasurable for novice smokers.
It doesn’t stop there. Each day, the five largest cigarette companies spend a total of more than $34 million advertising their products in magazines and retail stores. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a significant portion of the allocation often goes toward the promotion of smokeless tobacco products and e-cigarettes.
Experts say that’s part of the reason why e-cigarette among youth has tripled between 2011 and 2013, despite its well-documented health risks that bear a striking similarity to that of cigarettes and other tobacco products. While tobacco companies claim that e-cigarettes serve as a safe alternative to traditional tobacco products, a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that they do in fact encourage use of cigarettes among teenagers and young adults.
That’s why a proposed local ban on the sale of tobacco products, though unprecedented, could become a reality. Westminster public health officials, however, face a number of challenges, including that from a coalition of business owners. The group, endorsed by the New England Convenience Store Association, collected 800 signatures for a petition against the proposal at the time of the publishing of this article.
Representatives of tobacco companies have also spoken out against the proposed ban.
“We believe businesses should be able to choose which products they carry,” David Sutton, a spokesman for Richmond, Virginia-based Altria Group Inc., owner of the nation’s biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, told the Associated Press. “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.”
That argument, however, hasn’t deterred local and national groups’ efforts to combat Big Tobacco. Last year, five health groups, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, wrote a letter to the Tobacco Committee co-chairs of the National Association of Attorney in response to R.J. Reynold’s efforts to advertise Camel Crush cigarettes — a product with a capsule in the filter that allows the smoke to be menthol flavored when crushed — in publications widely circulated among teenagers.
Thirty states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have also banned smoking in indoor public places. Some employers also offer smoking cessation programs with offerings that include counseling and referral to long-term services. Last month, congressional Democrats demanded that US Weekly, People, Time, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly cease its tobacco advertising.
This wave of opposition against Big Tobacco’s efforts doesn’t come without reason. The CDC designates smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing more than 400,000 people annually — nearly one in five Americans. Experts say that smoking increases one’s risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, and host of other ailments that slowly debilitate the cardiovascular system.