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ACLU, city councilor take issue with revised tobacco regulations

NORTHAMPTON — Just days before Northampton implements sweeping new tobacco regulations designed to curb the impacts of secondhand smoke in public places and restrict the sale of tobacco products to minors, two local attorneys — including one city councilor — have raised objections to changes they say go too far.

“Generally, we’re supportive of all of the regulations protecting people from secondhand smoke, but some of these changes, in our opinion, appear to be overbroad,” said At-Large City Councilor Jesse M. Adams, who co-authored a letter to the Board of Health on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts with William C. Newman, director of the ACLU’s western Massachusetts office.

In March, the Board of Health joined a growing movement statewide when it unanimously approved regulations banning smoking at city-owned parks, playgrounds, athletic fields and swimming areas and implementing stiffer restrictions on the sale of tobacco products to children under 18. Smoking is also banned at private clubs.

Much of the ban is set to take effect Sunday, except for a Jan. 1 date set for municipal-owned parks and playgrounds.

The changes, board members say, aim to protect the health of residents and visitors citywide by limiting secondhand smoke and keeping tobacco and nicotine-delivery products such as electronic cigarettes out of the hands of youth. The ban extends to e-cigarettes.

Newman, who pointed out that he “hates secondhand smoke,” said the regulations as a whole are a good change. “I think a lot of the regulations fulfill the mission of the board and make Northampton a healthier place,” he said.

A few of the provisions, however, either do not make sense or wrongly attempt to dictate people’s behavior with no “appreciable public good,” Newman said.

Merridith O’Leary, director of public health for the city, declined comment, and Donna Salloom, chairwoman of the Board of Health, did not return calls seeking comment.

Newman and Adams, who also serves as vice president of the City Council, are asking the board to reconsider four main points. These include:

∎ The granting of an exemption to allow the Garden House Banquet Hall at Look Park to create a designated smoking area. The smoking ban at Look Park does not apply to the Garden House, which has a designated smoking area outside of the hall and away from all windows and doors.

Newman and Adams said the exemption appears to provide Look Park with an unfair advantage over private venues.

∎ Prohibiting the use of e-cigarettes where outdoor smoking is banned. Newman and Adams argue there is not enough scientific evidence about e-cigarettes to warrant such a ban. They said anecdotal evidence suggests that e-cigarettes have helped smokers to stop using tobacco and are considerably safer than tobacco cigarettes, at least for those exposed to secondhand nicotine vapor.

∎ Requiring store clerks to verify the age of every purchaser during each transaction. Under previous regulations, clerks were asked to card anyone who appears to be 27 or younger.

“Requiring a sales clerk to check the identification ... of a 60-year-old, after having checked 10 or 20 times previously, when he or she purchases a pack of cigarettes serves no legitimate purpose, we would suggest,” they wrote.

∎ Prohibiting the sale of blunt wraps, single cigars priced less than $2.50 or packs of two or more cigars priced less than $5.

The board imposed this new rule in an effort to curb sales to youths of these products that are typically aimed at younger audiences both in price and marketing. Newman and Adams argue restrictions on cigars unnecessarily disadvantage people of modest means, while the blunt wrap restrictions are popularly understood to refer to marijuana rather than tobacco.

The tobacco regulations, last updated in 2010 and modeled after recommendations from the state Department of Public Health, are divided into two sections. One covers smoking in workplaces and public places and the other governs the sale of tobacco and nicotine-delivery products.

The changes expand the list of prohibited smoking areas to include Pulaski, Look, and other parks, athletic fields, playgrounds and swimming areas owned by the city.

The city had already banned smoking in schools and on school grounds and buses, at workplaces, restaurants and bars, including outdoor seating, indoor sports arenas, health care facilities, tobacco retail shops, nursing homes and public transportation.

Fines levied by the Board of Health are $100 for a first violation, $200 for a second violation and $300 for third and subsequent violations. The Health Department intends to install metal signs in parks and other city-owned recreation areas reminding visitors of the rules.

In addition to the “We Card All” initiative, the rules cap the maximum number of tobacco and nicotine-delivery sales permits the Health Department issues at 34 and ban businesses with pharmacies from selling tobacco products. Retailers will also face stiffer penalties for selling tobacco products to minors.

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