WESTMINSTER, Mass. — Only a handful of people were able to speak on a proposal that could make the tiny Massachusetts town of Westminster the first in the nation to ban all sales of tobacco products when boos and shouts from the crowd shut down the public hearing.
Sixty or more residents in the packed Westminster Elementary school gymnasium were registered to share their opinions. Some among the audience of several hundred toted signs opposing the ban; some had participated in a rally earlier.
But amid shouts of “America!” and “Freedom Now,” Board of Health chairwoman Andrea Crete gaveled the hearing to a close just 25 minutes into it instead of taking comments.
“The crowd’s getting out of control and the room’s filled to capacity,” she said. “We don’t want any riots.”
Crete and the two other board members were escorted out by police, and the crowd dispersed. She said the board would accept written testimony until Dec. 1 and would vote later. She didn’t specify a date.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to have the hearing,” she said. “We’re trying to save lives and prevent children from being future users.”
Joyce McGuire, a Westminster resident and nonsmoker who opposes the ban, also was disappointed the hearing ended early.
“I think people are really angry because they feel this is being shoved down their throats,” she said. And with the proposal drawing national media attention, she added, “I think we all feel really embarrassed. I don’t think this is the way our town is.”
The decision rests solely with the board, which says it is fed up with bubblegum-flavored cigars, electronic cigarettes and other new products that appeal to young people. Board members say the easiest course of action is to enact a total ban on all sales within town lines.
One supporter, nonsmoker Vicki Tobin, said earlier that she’d like to keep cigarettes out of sight — and mind — of her three young boys.
“I just think it’s a great step in a positive way to promote a healthy town, a healthy lifestyle,” she said.
Shopkeeper Brian Vincent, whose country store on Main Street sells $100,000 worth of tobacco products a year, said he’s collected at least 900 signatures on a petition against the ban. He said smokers will simply make their purchases in other towns and probably buy their gas and groceries there as well.
“Having other adults decide what legal item we’re not allowed to consume just makes you wonder: If this passes, what could be next? Sugar? Bacon?” he said.
Tobacco industry groups also have called the proposal a “bad policy” that would harm local employers. The American Lung Association said Westminster would be the first community in the U.S. to take such sweeping action.
By Amy Crawford. AP writer Rodrique Ngowi contributed to this report