Pittsfield Board of Health mulls smoking age increase, elimination of flavored tobacco products

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PITTSFIELD — The Board of Health kept moving forward this week in updating tobacco control regulations that would raise the legal age for purchase to 21, tighten down on the transfer of sales licenses to a new store owner and eliminate flavored tobacco products that can be targeted toward youth.

The board on Thursday also received its first request for a delay in complying with the city's polystyrene foam food container ban, which is due to take effect on July 1.

An attorney representing Dunkin' Brands, the corporate entity of Dunkin' Donuts restaurants, requested a one-year delay in complying with the foam ban to allow time for development of a new large beverage cup lid to meet the ordinance requirements.

With Chairwoman Roberta "Bobbi" Orsi and Dr. Cynthia Geyer absent, the board decided to further discuss the proposed tobacco control regulations but postpone a vote on the changes until the March meeting. At that time, the board hopes to finalize a draft of the changes and hold a public hearing in April on the proposals before taking a final vote.

The board learned this week that 90 Massachusetts communities — up from 87 when they met in January — have now approved raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products. Four others have approved raising the age from 18 to 19.

Preventing teens from taking up smoking or other forms of tobacco use has been a prime motivation for the board to continually tighten the city's tobacco sales regulations.

"It's about protecting the next generation," said James Wilusz, director of Public Health with Tri Town Health Department, and administrator of the region's Tobacco Awareness Program, who met with board members.

The city and Berkshire County have higher rates of tobacco use than the state average, as well as a higher percentage of tobacco sales outlets when compared to population.

In recent years, the board has tightened tobacco use and sales regulations, including banning smoking in workplaces and public buildings and city-owned parks and playgrounds, and banning the sale of cheap cigars in small qualities.

The board in 2014 also approved a cap at 49 sales permits in Pittsfield, and at the same time set a goal of reducing that number to 25 permits over time as businesses with licenses close.

Wilusz and D.J. Wilson, tobacco control director and public health liaison at the Massachusetts Municipal Association, have been advising the board on the pending revisions, and Wilusz and Health Director Gina Armstrong are working between meetings to include the language revisions in a draft of the changes.

Wilson told the board in January that Pittsfield is at 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.

Discussion Thursday focused on under what conditions sales licenses can be transferred from a business that has closed or being sold to the new owner.

The board members present seemed to reach consensus on eliminating the word "transfer" pertaining to a license in the current regulations, as part of a move toward making it clear that a license from a closing or sold business must be turned in and the new owner must apply for a sales permit.

The board also is considering time limits of up to 90 days for a new applicant to file for a license and some other related new language. They also plan to propose that an applicant for any city building or other permit be asked to check off that they are aware of the tobacco license requirements.

Wilusz said the new language also proposes to eliminate flavored tobacco products, such as some cigars, with the exception of menthol, which cannot be banned as the result of a lawsuit ruling. There are as many as 400 flavors used in tobacco products, which are considered to be aimed at young smokers.

The board also met with Pierce Haley, an attorney with Serlin Haley of Boston, which is representing Dunkin' Brands. He said the company is asking those communities that have enacted polystyrene bans for more time to fully comply by using new recyclable paper and polypropylene-lined cups and lids.

He said new lids have been developed for the 16-ounce and 20-ounce Dunkin' cups but not yet for a 24-ounce cup. The city ordinance, like those enacted elsewhere in the state, typically allow at least a one-year delay if the ban causes the company an "undue hardship," as in the city ordinance.

Board member Jay Green said he thought a delay for the 24-ounce cup lids alone would be reasonable, but Dominica D'Avella urged caution because this was the first request received for a delay and the board could be setting a precedent.

Those present agreed they should wait until a full board is present before making a decision and asked Haley to return for the March meeting or submit any additional information before that session.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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