, Newburyport, MA

December 21, 2013

Newburyport lightens up on new tobacco regs


---- — NEWBURYPORT — Members of the Board of Health are now considering raising the age of buying tobacco products from 18 to 19 in an apparent gesture to accommodate concerns of owners of small businesses here.

No decision has been made but members Thursday night indicated that they might be having second thoughts on their initial intention of raising the buying age to 21.

Local merchants had expressed concern at a board meeting several weeks ago that raising the age from 18 to 21 would cut into their annual income.

They said sales could drop up to 40 percent when considering that a customer buying tobacco products generally purchases five or six other items.

About 17 enterprises have licenses to sell tobacco here, city officials say.

Also, the board appeared to soften its position of transferring a license to sell tobacco when the store is sold.

Owners of small convenience markets here have said that the inability to transfer a tobacco-sales license would hurt the value of their property.

The discussion of the purchase of tobacco has arisen because local board members say that they are trying to cap the sale of tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars and “electronic” cigarettes.

In doing so, local health officials are following the lead of state leaders who are encouraging communities to tighten local regulations to minimize the use of tobacco as a short-term effort to improve public health.

National statistics used by state officials indicate about 20 percent of Americans use tobacco products.

Board members want to keep such items out of the hands of teen-agers, when addiction to nicotine begins for most smokers. It was said that two out of 10 students in local high schools use tobacco products.

Cost alone doesn’t seem to be stopping some smokers.

A pack of Marlboro costs about $10.05 in local stores; a package of unfiltered Camels can run about $11.60, according to an informal survey here.

An electronic cigarette costs about $9.50, and its “life” is equal to that of about two packs of cigarettes, store managers say. An e-cigarette is tobacco-free. The slender unit heats up a chemical solution and emits vapors while giving smokers a nicotine fix, according to those who are battling use of tobacco.

At its recent meeting, the Board of Health spent almost two hours discussing the need to regulate sales -- and the penalties for selling to those “underaged” -- when the legal age is finalized.

Dr. Robin Blair, board chair, suggested the board consider a “Fenway solution.” At Fenway Park, all prospective buyers of beer are asked for identification.

Even elderly fans with no visual connection to their youth must show a photo identification.

At Fenway, some older beer buyers act flattered. But the half-dozen owners of convenience stories who attended the meeting complained that it would be a significant inconvenience.

Also, owners asked that the board not put a minimum age of 18 or 19 on store personnel who sell tobacco.

They said that in summer, they often put teen-agers to work. If those 16 or 17 couldn’t sell tobacco, they might not hire younger teens.

The three-member Board of Health will hold a public hearing in coming weeks to continue the discussion on how to limit sales of tobacco and tobacco products here.