Store owners, health advocates debate flavored tobacco ban in Woonsocket

Store owners, health advocates debate flavored tobacco ban in Woonsocket

WOONSOCKET – Store owners say a new ban on flavored tobacco will put them out of business, driving customers to neighboring communities where the products can be legally purchased.

But health advocates say that flavored tobacco is marketed to children, and that city officials need to take a stand and maintain a ban against their sale.

A public hearing on the issue before the Woonsocket City Council Monday night prompted emotional testimony on both sides.

“Flavored tobacco is a silly issue. Go after the alcohol. Go after the heroine addicts,” said Anna Cogean, a resident who said she has worked for many of the stores that sell the products. “Go after education. There are so many more important things you guys could be doing.”

Mary Cimini, a tobacco treatment specialist for the Greater Blackstone Valley Prevention Coalition and a former smoker, discussed tobacco’s impact on her life to illustrate the importance of keeping youth away from the potential addiction.

“I made no serious attempts to quit until my father died of lung cancer at the age of 66,” said Cimini. Her mother, she said, also died of lung cancer within 10 years. “I knew at that point that this addiction would kill me.”

The hearing follows a decision by the City Council last November to create a new licensing process for tobacco retailers that also banned the sale of flavored products. Store owners were not notified that councilors were considering the change, but were instead told after the vote that the new rules would go into effect April 1.

In March, dozens of convenience store owners hired attorneys challenging the ban and flooded City Council meetings to beg the board to reconsider. Councilors ultimately voted to delay implementation of the new rules until July 1 to allow further discussion of the issue.

“They would like to know why their stores and this particular product are being singled out,”said David Corwin, an attorney representing the owners of AJ’s Mini Mart on Social Street. “It’s a legal product that they sell.”

Corwin and others questioned how the ban would stop tobacco from getting into the hands of minors, noting that it is already illegal to sell tobacco products to those under the age of 18.

“If it’s an issue of breaking the law, then the solution is not the proposed ordinance, it’s stricter enforcement,” said Corwin. “You are a border community. Any time you make it harder for these stores to sell their products, you make it easier for their consumers – often repeat consumers – to go over the border.”

Gumanai Shah, who said her father has owned Quick Mart for the past 16 years, said that the customers who come in for flavored tobacco also buy other provisions such as milk, bread and snacks, and that losing that income will hurt the business’s already small profit margin.

“Ultimately these stores will be forced to close down,” Shah said. “My dad, he works hard. We think that Woonsocket is making a drastic mistake by making such a change.”

The two were among more than a dozen owners, employees and lawyers to speak against the ban, which would affect 42 city businesses.

But tobacco control advocates also had their say.

Lisa Carcifero, executive director of the Woonsocket Prevention Coalition said that 480,000 people die every year in the United States from disease related to tobacco use, making it the leading cause of preventable illness and death in the country.

“Tobacco companies cannot survive unless they get youth to buy their products,” she said. “They’re always one step ahead of us with developing products to attract our youth.”

The city of Providence banned the sale of flavored tobacco in 2012, a move that ultimately survived several legal challenges.

Ellen Cynar, director of the Healthy Communities office for the city of Providence said that she was unaware of any of the city’s 400 tobacco retailers shutting down since the ban, and “Flavored tobacco is an on ramp to long term smoking.”

With the July 1 deadline looming, it was unclear Monday how councilors would ultimately rule on the issue.

“I think we do need some sort of licensing,” said Councilor Daniel Gendron, adding, “I’ve never been a big advocate of creating laws because we’re not enforcing other laws that we have.”

Gendron told the crowds in attendance that the council’s next step will be to hold a work session without public comment.

“I think this council will be doing some work to amend it,” he said of the ordinance. “We will be having these discussions.”