It's hard not to feel bad for smokers these days.
You'll see them huddled on loading docks, in cold and forlorn back doorways, off in the distance and away from the crowds, puffing away in furtive silence. It used to be that the Marlboro Man was the cool guy to be. Not any more.
The countless anti-smoking regulations, the dethroning of the once powerful tobacco companies, the huge taxes on cigarette packs, the stark ads depicting dying lung cancer victims, and the social shunning have all done their job. Over the past 50 years, the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped from about 42 percent to 19 percent, and it continues its downward trend, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
That's all good of course. But like an abandoned cigarette butt smoldering on the sidewalk, apparently some people feel the few remaining smokers, and the people who sell them their smokes, still need to be stomped on and crushed out.
Among them is the City of Newburyport, which is following the lead of the state Department of Health in proposing local rules that will prohibit Newburyport stores from selling tobacco products to adults between the age of 18 and 21, and make it harder for businesses that sell tobacco to transfer their licenses to new owners.
In effect, the regulations will prevent young adults from doing something that is perfectly legal, and it punishes local businesses for selling a legal product.
This latest round of anti-smoking initiatives is taking things a bit too far, in our opinion. It strips young adults of a legal right to buy cigarettes in this city. It is also anti-small business. There are 17 stores throughout the city that count on cigarette sales to help meet their bottom line. It is grossly unfair to punish them for taking part in legal commerce.
At a recent public hearing, some local store owners noted tobacco sales make up 40 to 50 percent of their annual gross, in large part because a customer will buy a tobacco product and a handful of other things. Take the tobacco off the shelves, and that customer will go to another town.
“I am an ex-smoker, and I get what health officials are saying about bad habits,” said Dana Walentuk, who operates the Warren Street Market and Deli. “But we are a dollar-and-cents business; every customer is important. If we push customers across the border because they can’t buy certain items, it’s going to hurt us.”
This effort by the city's health department sounds like a dream come true for the smoke shops that line Route 1 in Seabrook, N.H. It won't prevent people from smoking, it will just push the sales over the border.
Most people have some kind of semi-bad habit that gives them pleasure, helps them get through the day or eases their mind. Certainly smoking is that for many people. Smokers are already paying dearly for their habit. Let's not punish them further, and spread the punishment to small businesses that are just trying to make a legal living.