PITTSFIELD — Two city councilors and a Cumberland Farms representative strongly objected Wednesday to the Board of Health's cap on new tobacco sales licenses in Pittsfield during a hearing on further regulatory changes the board is considering.
The discussion sets up an expected debate at the council's meeting Tuesday, when the health board will attend to discuss the license cap and other tobacco regulations.
"I am very concerned about the cap on permits," said Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell, who also objected to the regulation during prior meetings concerning a request for a new convenience store permit, which was denied.
He questioned why the board has set a long-term cap goal of 25 sales permits, which would mean a slow reduction of the current 51, while the city of North Adams is considering a cap of 23 permits with a much smaller city population.
The "lofty" cap goal would only be reached, board members have said, when businesses close and licenses are surrendered with being transferred — that has yet to occur since the cap was enacted.
Connell asked whether there are statistics showing a decline in smoking in Pittsfield after the board several years ago banned tobacco sales in pharmacies, which he said would provide more of a rationale for a further permit reduction. The councilor said he hopes health officials can provide those figures when the board meets with the council.
The board has cited a higher than average number of sales outlets in Pittsfield, along with high adult and youth smoking rates in the county for the cap, which was put into effect in 2014. Board member Jay Green also noted at Wednesday's hearing that the permit total has not, in fact, declined since then, and the regulations allow for a new owner to obtain a license for a store than has been operating.
In fact, Green said, the revisions now being considered by the board include language changes designed to clarify exactly how a new business owner can receive such a transferred license. He said the board has shown flexibility in dealing with businesses seeking permit transfers — actually a surrender of the license and issuance of a new one by the Health Department.
Connell and Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo, who also attended the prior board meeting, argued that if addressing youth smoking was a prime goal of health officials, raising the legal age to purchase from 18 to 21 — which is in the new regulation proposal — would affect that more than a permit cap.
Both councilors said they support raising the legal age to 21.
The proposed changes, which the board tabled for further consideration at their next monthly meeting, also include a ban on most flavored tobacco products. The board is expected to further define those products in a draft set of changes, which has been posted on the city website.
"I really think it is important that we have a lot more dialogue before you put this in place," Mazzeo said, saying she believes a discussion during the council session will be more widely noticed than the health board hearings that have led to regulatory changes over the past two years.
She said she favors "a moratorium on regulations," until there is more widespread agreement on the changes.
"I think the word 'reasonable' is where we need to have a conversation," Mazzeo said, adding that the city is facing a tough budget season and is anxious to increase economic activity in Pittsfield.
Connell termed the effective ban on any more sales licenses "a barrier to growth for one industry [convenience stores]," which he urged the board to lift.
Also speaking during the hearing was Chad LaCasse, manager at the Cumberland Farms store on First Street, which is in the process of being replaced by the chain with a new, larger store.
LaCasse said Cumberland Farms would consider opening one or two more stores in Pittsfield, but not without a tobacco sales permit, which he said remains necessary to a convenience store's survival.
The chain has emphasized other products over the years and attempted to move away from tobacco sales, he said, "but in the interim, we need tobacco," which LaCasse noted was a legal product.
Without a license, "it would be impossible to develop another store in Pittsfield," he said.
Board Chairwoman Roberta "Bobbi" Orsi said at the conclusion of the hearing, "I think the board has had this conversation for hours and hours and hours," and "done lots of due diligence" on the issue of restricting access to tobacco products.
"If we need to see more tobacco to generate economic activity, then I think we have more problems as a community," Orsi said.
She said she will be attending the council session Tuesday.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.