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Impact of tobacco regulations debated in Amherst

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Ray Cross, district manager for F.L. Roberts & Co. which operates the Mobil station at 399 Northampton Road, told the Board of Health that proposed revisions restricting the sale of inexpensive single cigars would have a dramatic impact.

“If you start restricting that, you’re damaging the industry as a whole,” Cross said.

Cross said those cigars, available for under $2.50 apiece, are some of the best-selling items to consumers. Similar restrictions in Montague saw more than a 70 percent decline in revenue at an F.L. Roberts store in Turners Falls, Cross said, with customers likely heading to Greenfield for these products.

Board of Health member Julie Marcus said this indicates that such a restriction would serve as an effective deterrent.

“He gave me the strongest piece of information on why this is a good idea,” Marcus said.

The proposed regulations, titled Restricting the Sale and Use of Tobacco Products and Nicotine Delivery Products, also include prohibiting the sale of blunt wraps, setting a maximum of 23 tobacco sales licenses, establishing a procedure for retiring a license when a holder goes out of business, and restricting sale of tobacco products at pharmacies. In Amherst, that means CVS Pharmacy, which has stores on University Drive and North Pleasant Street, would no longer be able to offer cigarettes.

Though Cross was the only business representative in attendance, several industry associations submitted letters expressing similar concerns about the potential negative consequences to their businesses, said Board of Health Chairman David Ahlfeld.

Board member Nancy Gilbert said restaurants tried similar tactics when smoking restrictions were being proposed in the 1990s, claiming that Amherst would lose business.

“The same arguments were used when there was a ban on smoking in restaurants,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said it’s part of the risk of taking a stance to promote health.

Cheryl Sbarra, a representative of the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, said the industry also tried to stop changes several years ago when the sale of loose cigarettes was prohibited.

“This is a rational regulation based on the high use of inexpensive cigars among youth and it’s very similar to the banning of the sale of loosies for cigarettes,” Sbarra said.

The legitimate concern to communities, she said, is that cheap cigars are targeted at younger people. “It’s a youth-pricing strategy is what it is,” Sbarra said.

When similar rules went into effect regarding single cigar sales in Boston, she said there was no evidence sales dropped.

Cross said he believes the new regulations are targeted at responsible retailers.

“My main goal is to express to the board that we should not penalize responsible retailers and the responsible of-age consumers,” said Cross, observing that his store is committed to ensuring there is no underage sale of tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets to minors.

Residents and businesses may submit written comments to the Health Department through July 1. The board is expected to vote on the regulations July 11, which if adopted would take effect Sept. 1.

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