1st-in-nation tobacco ban to receive public comment

Health officials in Westminster were to hold a public hearing on a proposed first-in-the-nation ban on sales of all tobacco and nicotine products — a move that has bitterly divided the usually cozy community of 7,700.

Westminster's Board of Health said it was expecting such a strong turnout Wednesday evening, it would meet in a school cafeteria rather than in its usual cramped conference room at Town Hall. A final decision was expected later.

Officials in the central Massachusetts town said they're fed up with bubblegum-flavored cigars, electronic cigarettes and other new products that appeal to young people. They said the easiest course of action is to enact a total ban on all sales within town lines.

The American Lung Association said Westminster would be the first community in the U.S. to take such sweeping action.

Town health agent Elizabeth Swedberg has the support of nonsmokers like Vicki Tobin, who said she'd like to keep cigarettes out of sight — and mind — of her three young boys.

"I just think it's a great step in a positive way to promote a healthy town, a healthy lifestyle," she said.

But shopkeeper Brian Vincent, whose country store on Main Street sells $100,000 worth of tobacco products a year, said he's collected at least 900 signatures on a petition against the ban. Vincent said smokers will simply make their purchases in other towns, and probably buy their gas and groceries there as well.

"Having other adults decide what legal item we're not allowed to consume just makes you wonder: If this passes, what could be next? Sugar? Bacon?" he said.

Tobacco industry groups also have called the proposal a "bad policy" that would harm local employers.