PITTSFIELD — The Board of Health continues to tighten city tobacco regulations and is poised to raise the legal age to purchase cigarettes and related products to 21.
The board on Thursday met with officials working on county and statewide levels to reduce tobacco use and eventually decided to schedule a hearing during its February meeting on proposed regulation changes.
The board has expressed support for Pittsfield joining 87 other Massachusetts communities in raising the legal age to purchase from 18 to 21. Four other communities have approved a hike to 19.
Chairwoman Roberta "Bobbi" Orsi said a draft of the proposed regulation language changes will be discussed next month and input from the public will be sought. The board would likely take a vote on the proposal in March, she said.
James Wilusz, director of Public Health with Tri Town Health Department, and administrator of the Tobacco Awareness Program, which coordinates the initiatives in 12 local communities, including Pittsfield, said he would help Health Director Gina Armstrong with language revisions to produce a draft of the changes.
The board also met with D.J. Wilson, tobacco control director and public health liaison at the Massachusetts Municipal Association, who gave an update on proposed legislation to raise the purchase age statewide and enact other regulatory changes that is before lawmakers.
Wilson said Pittsfield is in the forefront of efforts to reduce the number of outlets where tobacco may be purchased. "A few dozen cities and towns have caps, but few have [set a reduction in sales permits as a goal]," he said.
The board in 2014 approved a cap at the current 49 sales permits in Pittsfield, and also set a goal of reducing that number to 25 permits over time. The current number had earlier been reduced from 60 by prohibiting sales by pharmacies.
Existing sales permits can be renewed under a new business ownership, but those shops that go out of business or otherwise close could have the permit deactivated by the Health Department.
The regulation language changes discussed Thursday related to "gray areas" in that section that have cropped up concerning new businesses and those that have changed hands. Cases involved the new Big Y Express convenience store on West Street, which had the construction project in the planning and permitting stage for some time when developers learned of the pending cap, and another business that narrowly missed a cutoff date after the regulations had changed.
Both those businesses were allowed licenses, but board members made it clear that they were approved only because the regulations were still being implemented and refined.
Another case discussed Thursday concerns a convenience store that obtained a permit under new ownership but has failed to reopen for about a year. Board members talked about the need to set specific time frames for obtaining a permit transfer, with periods of 60 to 90 days proposed.
Board member Jay Green proposed a definition of "active use" of a sales permit to cover when a business is closed for an extended period. He added that he doesn't believe permit transfers to a new owner should be automatic but should be subject to a review by the board in each case.
Wilson said scenarios the board could encounter include the effects when the entire building containing a shop is sold, and when a business is closed and for sale but is on the market for a long time.
At one point, board member Steve Smith proposed that permits be immediately returned to the Health Department when a businesses is closed and that the board would then have the option of granting an extension to allow a pending sale or new business start-up.
Member Dominica D'Avella said business owners should understand that the board's intent is "not to disrupt business," but to address a serious public health issue.
The board began its efforts to tighten local regulations in light of tobacco use rates, including among youth, in Berkshire County and Western Massachusetts that are higher than the state average.
Board members also stressed that business owners should be made aware of the city's tobacco regulations as soon as they begin planning a new business or the purchase of an existing one. Health officials plan to consult with the city Building and Community Development departments on that score.
Orsi said she wants to information available so that business owners or developers don't come to the board saying, "Oops, we didn't know," about the licensing requirements.
Wilson said a comprehensive bill is now before the Legislature that would cover a number of tobacco control issues, including the sale of flavored products aimed at teens, and making 21 the legal age to purchase statewide. He said it is unclear how soon a bill might clear the legislative process.
He added that momentum for the 21 age minimum and other changes to discourage tobacco use by the young got a boost with the addition of Boston and other cities to the ranks.
Wilusz said that in Berkshire County, Williamstown, Lee and Stockbridge have approved higher purchases ages, and Adams, North Adams and Great Barrington have expressed an interest in doing so.
The city board has tightened several tobacco use and sales regulations in recent years, including banning smoking in workplaces and public buildings and city-owned parks and playgrounds, banning the sale of cheap cigars in small qualities, and freezing the number of tobacco sales licenses allowed in the city.