Northampton’s health board looks to curb permits for tobacco shops

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-07-2023 12:02 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Proposed additions to the city of Northampton’s tobacco regulations would reduce the number of permits allowed for tobacco shops, effectively preventing any new retail outlets from selling tobacco products in the future.

The city’s Board of Health held a meeting in late March to discuss the proposed amendments to the city’s current regulations on the sale of tobacco products. The amendments call for reducing the cap on the number license permits from 29 to 24, noting that there are currently 23 merchants in the city and one more that is seeking a permit.

In addition, the amendment would continue to limit the number of permits through attrition, meaning that if a merchant were to give up their permit, it would not be reissued to a new business that requested one.

“If a store goes out of business and they sell it to someone else, that’s a transfer,” said Joanne Levin, the chair of the Board of Health. “But if a site gives up their permit, it would come back to the department and not be released again.”

Though the proposed amendment would effectively result in a gradual elimination of tobacco sales in the city, Levin said such a goal would in actuality be hard to achieve.

“It seems unlikely that would happen,” she said during the meeting.

The new regulations also seek to close potential loopholes that could circumvent the permits, such as selling of flavored tobacco products or non-menthol cigarettes.

“If I know big tobacco like I know big tobacco, they’re always 10 steps ahead of us, and it’s going to be a continuous game of whack-a-mole,” said Northampton Health & Human Services Commissioner Meredith O’Leary. “I can’t imagine we’ll be done after this.”

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In addition, the new regulations would raise the minimum prices on cigars from $2.50 for a single cigar to $2.90, and introduce a $1,000 fine and three-day suspension for sale to minors.

The city last attempted to restrict sales of tobacco products in 2019, when it proposed restricting sales exclusively to smoke shops and reducing the cap from 29 to 27. That ultimately was voted down after convenience stores lobbied against it and the board decided state-approved excise taxes on vaping products were sufficient enough to not need sale restrictions.

The Board of Health plans to hold a public hearing on the proposed changed when it meets next on April 20. The board indicated that if there was significant public comment regarding the proposed amendments at the next meeting, they would postpone the vote to a later date, but otherwise the amendments would be voted on that day.

The attempt to restrict tobacco sales comes as the city in recent months has introduced a cap on the number of marijuana dispensaries in the city, while at the same time adding additional liquor licenses to help attract new businesses to the area.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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