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Up in Smoke: Highlights from a Year of Tobacco Policy Debate

The Northampton Board of Health’s year-long preoccupation with Tobacco policy came to an anticlimactic, if only temporary, end in January

By Harrison Greene and Brian Zayatz

Readers of The Shoestring might know that, beginning in Fall 2018, the Northampton Board of Health once again took up the effort to reform its tobacco regulations. After a year of addressing almost no other public health issues—saving lesser issues like monitoring vaccination rates in the city’s public schools and regulating pesticide use in playgrounds and parks to the final minutes of their meetings—the Board decided in January to postpone its most significant proposed changes until they’ve had a chance to review the impact of new state legislation that will take effect in June. In the meantime, they will focus on publicizing smokers’ options for accessing subsidized cessation programs. In February, the Board spent a sizable portion of the meeting recapping the year, and having spent the majority of our third-Thursdays-of-the-month (or whenever they decided to hold their meetings) alongside the Board in 2019, we wanted to share some of our favorite moments from the journey with you all as well. (Note: this should not be taken as an exhaustive recap of our previous coverage of this issue. For additional context, you can read those pieces here and here).

Perceived ad-hominems and lack of evidence

Beginning in May, when members of the public argued that the Smoke Free Downtown regulation would give police yet another opportunity to interact with and eventually displace panhandlers and buskers from downtown, there was some sense that this constituted a personal attack against the members of the Board. Cheryl Sbarra, an attorney with the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards who frequently advised the Board on legal precedent for their proposals, said it was “not appropriate” to suggest that the regulation was “a cloaked attempt to do anything.” Nobody had suggested this, however: in what became a theme over the following months, the Board continued to interpret critiques of the impact of the proposed regulation as critiques of their own intentions. That same meeting, Board member Suzanne Smith noted that “we will never have evidence” to support the proposal; at a later meeting, Board member Cynthia Suopis mentioned that the regulation had been inspired by frequent calls to the Health Department, and Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary confirmed that those calls were from business owners; additionally, the Board refused to investigate any links, inadvertent or otherwise, between their proposal and the Chamber of Commerce or the Mayor’s secret Panhandling Work Group. Pleading ignorance of the latter’s existence, Smith spoke for the Board that “clearly, we’re not a part of it.”

Amateur ethnography

Facing criticism that police enforcement of smoking restrictions would result in vulnerable groups being targeted, members of the Board set out to do their own research in what Director O’Leary described as her “white whale” for regulations of ambient tobacco smoke: Pulaski Park. According to Suopis, not many of the smokers in the park were panhandling, and on salsa night, which was “very diverse,” there was hardly any smoking at all. 

“I would really like to hear from business owners.”

Normally, we at The Shoestring take issue when governing bodies specifically seek out input from business owners on regulations that might impact them, but do so for no other group. However, in this case, we found ourselves aligned with one of the more conservative members of the Board, Suzanne Smith, who was the only member to vocalize dissent regarding proposals that would potentially shutter a significant portion of the city’s convenience stores, many of which are immigrant-owned, by limiting the sale of all tobacco and nicotine products to adult-only tobacconist establishments (which accounted for four of twenty-nine tobacco retail licenses in the city at the time). Smith threw out the number 60% to estimate the amount of revenue these businesses stood to lose; one shop owner estimated 30-40% for his own shop. (For tobacconists, who have already been impacted by the state’s emergency vape ban, the numbers were steeper: The Vault, which was the only independently-staffed tobacconist in the city to stay open, reported a 70% drop in revenue to the Board). After witnessing the parade of convenience store owners, none of whom appeared to be white, speak against the proposed regulations, it was hard to imagine a phrase like “selling death,” as Board member Laurent Levy put it, not having some xenophobic animus to it. When asked by The Shoestring whether the Board has attempted to study or in any way take into consideration the racial demographics of business owners who would likely be impacted by the BOH’s proposals, O’Leary answered bluntly; “Not that I’m aware of.” 

Over-policing baked into bureaucracy

While listening to the Board discuss tobacco sales policy, we assumed the regulations would have less to do with policing and more to do with fines and fees. One part of the existing regulation that caught our attention, however, forbids anyone from selling a package of cigarettes with fewer than 20 individual cigarettes in it, or any loose cigarettes—the same type of regulation that allowed police to initiate an interaction with Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014, which ended in the 43-year-old father’s death. We bring this up not because it is new—it was already on the books in the city, and was only being amended to forbid retailers from refilling vape cartridges—but because we had watched as community members spent several of the previous months trying, mostly fruitlessly, to convince BOH members that their actions could have violent consequences. Evidence abounds that police violence is a legitimate threat to public health (There were 59 known vaping deaths between 2017-2019; meanwhile 1,099 people were killed by police in 2019, 1,143 in 2018, and 1,095 in 2017), yet it has not warranted the same outcry as comparatively far less deadly vaping. In February, Director O’Leary said that health department and police department educational dyads hitting Pulaski Park is still on the table.

Laurent loves bongs

We’d like to take a moment to appreciate Laurent Levy, who captured our hearts during the first meeting we attended in the spring with a rambling soliloquy about the similarities and differences between tobacco and alcohol. On multiple occasions during later meetings, he sought to clarify that regulations that would put all tobacco products into adult-only retail shops would not result in the limit of the sale of bongs at these locations, repeatedly asserting that bongs are art.

A Resignation

In January one of the quieter members of the Board, Bill Hargraves, was absent from his usual corner seat, and Director O’Leary mentioned in passing that he had resigned. When The Shoestring attempted to follow up with the Health Department secretary to see if there was a statement we could reference, we were told there was none, and that there was no reason for his resignation, he just resigned. We’re not sure if this is different in some way from a retirement, but nonetheless, there is a vacancy that as of February’s meeting has had no applicants. During the BOH’s February meeting, it was said that the city’s website would be updated to entice prospective applicants. As of publication it has not been updated, but if you’re interested in applying keep checking in here or email the Mayor or Department of Health Director directly.

In a collaborative spirit

At January’s meeting, Gaurang Patel, the owner of Bird’s Store and Florence Smoke Shop, urged the Board during public comment to give stakeholders more than three minutes to speak and allow dialogue between the Board and the public (which is usually forbidden), in order to find solutions that satisfy everyone. It was at this meeting that the Board decided to pursue only definitional changes in the short term, and table everything else until state laws regulating the sale of vapes take effect. The Board did disregard their own rules, though, in order to converse with Patel (whose store they have previously expressed concern for) about how to word their regulations so as not to force him to staff the tobacconist side of his shop separately, which he said would not be a viable business model. During a previous meeting which included City Solicitor Alan Seewald clarifying open meeting law, BOH members asked questions such as whether they are legally required to provide public comment and whether they could legally close the meeting room door to “prevent noise” from the usually sleepy second floor of City Hall.

After a year of meetings in which major changes seemed just on the horizon for Northampton’s smokers and tobacco retailers, little has changed, except on the state level. That didn’t stop the Board from taking on a fairly self-congratulatory tone: Director O’Leary praised the Board’s process as “excellent” and repeatedly told them she was “proud” and had “warm fuzzies” over the way the Board took everyone’s feelings into consideration. She later scolded the public for not understanding how much thought and time went into the Board’s decisions and for perhaps holding up the difficult process of regulation; which goes to show that public pressure works. Moving forward, O’Leary recommended Board members write in the Gazette, whom she implied would print whatever they wrote.

Whether the state’s ban of flavored vaping and tobacco products will satisfy those exhibiting the classic symptoms of drug panic following 2019’s slew of vaping-related lung injuries, we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, the Health Department is going to start hosting drop-in cessation information sessions in Pulaski Park in the spring, which begs the question of why such a seemingly common sense approach was not prioritized a year ago? It could have freed up a lot of time for the Board to focus on literally anything else.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. Harrison Greene is a co-editor of The Shoestring.

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