Health advocates back proposed tobacco regulations in Amherst

  • In this June 17, 2019, file photo, a cashier displays a packet of tobacco-flavored Juul pods at a store in San Francisco.  AP PHOTO/SAMANTHA MALDONADO  

Staff Writer
Saturday, November 16, 2019

AMHERST — Health advocates concerned about the ease with which youth can access vaping products, such as Juul pods and e-cigarettes, as well as menthol and mint-flavored tobacco, are supporting proposed Board of Health rules that would further restrict their availability. 

“I like everything you’re doing and encourage you to do even more,” Mary Kersell, an Amherst resident formerly of the Franklin and Hampshire Substance and Tobacco Prevention Partnership, told the health board at a public hearing Thursday at the Bangs Community Center.

The Board of Health is considering updating its regulation on sale of tobacco and vape products by restricting mint, menthol and wintergreen tobacco products to adult-only stores, and limiting vaping products to these same businesses. Amherst has just two adult-only stores, Exscape downtown and Wildside in the East Amherst village center.

Most of the feedback voiced to the Board of Health supported the changes.

“We can curb youth use from up here with good policy,” said Heather Warner, coordinator of the Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth Coalition.

Warner said the coalition is working with Amherst public schools to reduce smoking and vaping by youth. She observed that a survey of 500 students in Amherst illustrated an “alarming” trend in which 28 percent of high school seniors are now using vaping products regularly, an increase from 17 percent in 2017.

Sarah DuPont, a UMass graduate student and representative on the Tobacco-Free UMass Amherst Committee, said restricting vaping products to adult-only shops would be a great benefit to the health of college students.

Gwen Moriarty, a junior at UMass who also serves on the same committee, said flavored tobacco products are especially popular with students who arrive on campus without previously being smokers.

Melinda Calianos, program coordinator for the Tobacco-Free Community Partnership, urged passage of all elements of the revised regulation, describing tobacco as the top preventable cause of death in the United States.

Two business owners told the health board that the changes would hurt their businesses.

Glenn Hamill, who has owned the Amherst Center Store on Triangle Street for the past four years, said removing more tobacco products would likely cut about a third of the store’s annual revenue.

“It will make it very difficult for convenience stores to stay open,” Hamel said.

Sunset Pizza owner Rebecca Casagrande, who has a license to sell tobacco, said Juul’s announcement that it would stop making flavored vaping products was already going to mean less revenue.

Her bigger worry, she said, is that the changes to the regulations will mean many smokers returning to cigarettes. Casagrande also asked the health board to look into whether penalties could be issued to people using fake IDs, as it is a challenge to ask all customers to present two forms of identification since the minimum age to purchase tobacco products was raised to 21 in Amherst four years ago.

The Board of Health will continue to take feedback through Nov. 22, with a vote not likely until sometime in early 2020. The new regulations would then go into effect at a later date.

The board last voted to change the “Regulations of the Amherst Board of Health Restricting the Sale of Tobacco Products” in May 2015.