Westminster's "first in the nation" tobacco sales ban fiasco

Wild times in the Elementary School

Independent Sentinel photo

What’s up with Westminster and the national news? We’re a small, relatively conservative, rural town in central Massachusetts up near the New Hampshire border, yet we keep making the national, and even international, news. We’ve lived in town about 16 years, and the Town of Westminster has hit the national radar four times. For a town of 7,400 inhabitants, that’s a lot. And it’s always for oddball things.

First, back in 2001, we made news for the highest school sports fees in the entire country. Our two town school district, AWRSD (Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District), has perpetual funding issues, thanks to maxxed out property taxes, declining state aid, increasing state requirements, and a generally anti-tax populace.Nevertheless, the school district continues to excel while the towns fight over funding. However, back in 2001 an override to fund the schools was yet again voted down, and in response the district, perhaps to teach the sports loving populace a lesson, instituted $1,000 sports fees to play football. Probably unknown to the school board at the time, but these fees turned out to be the highest in the country, putting us in to the national spotlight.

Then a few years ago we made the national news again, for the dubious distinction of employing our town police to collect overdue library books. This one was really exaggerated, but thanks to the joint efforts of The Boston Globe and the Drudge Report, which both know a good story when they see one, Westminster went national again.

Then, a year or so later, the school district again hit the Drudge Report, this time for laying off teachers while simultaneously buying iPads for kindergartners. This was a tempest in a teapot…….the funding was not interchangeable, and in the end no teachers were actually laid off, but nevertheless, it was another opportunity for Westminster to bask reluctantly in the spotlight. I don’t recall how the kindergartners did with iPads, but if they ever got them, I’m sure more than a few are broken by now.

The "Live Free or Die" contingent

Washington Post photos

However this year, 2014, we outdid all previous forays onto the national scene, and in fact we were blinking in the glare of the international spotlight, for an ill advised attempt to become the first town in the entire country to ban the sale of any and all products related to tobacco.

This was a blunder of monumental proportions, and legitimately garnered media attention from around the world. I have two kids currently in New Zealand, and they heard about it on the news…….or at least our daughter did. Our son, who is not very attentive to the news, obviously didn’t hear it on the news, as he and his girlfriend, currently traveling around the world, were contemplating West Africa as their next stop. Luckily my daughter let them know this probably was a bad move, given the Ebola epidemic. They’re going next to Australia instead.

So what happened? What possessed a tiny town like Westminster to try to institute a “first in the nation” ban on the sales of cigarettes, chewing tobacco, vaporizers, and the like?

First of all, the town didn’t try to do it. Our Board of Health, consisting of three elected officials, came up with this brilliant idea. Despite the inaccurate news reports, which claimed the town was divided on this issue, the town was 99.9% fervently against the idea. Our Board of Health town wide meeting on the subject, that was broadcast worldwide, certainly proved that point. It was a memorable experience--I was there. It wasn’t like Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination by any stretch, but I’ll remember it. It was one of the wildest political experiences I’ve seen.

The back story to this fiasco is that there are a lot of nonprofit organizations funded by the government, out of the tobacco settlement funds, that are looking to discourage smoking. One of the more radical groups apparently contacted our Board of Health and tried to get us to join the latest movement, which is for pharmacies to stop selling tobacco products, the reasoning being that places devoted to health shouldn’t also be selling products that win the prize, hands down, for the worst product sold in the world.


Too much clapping!

Boston Herald photo

The problem was that Westminster is so small that it doesn’t have any pharmacy chains. In fact, it just has a small compounding pharmacy, The Westminster Pharmacy, which besides being a pharmacy also sells an excellent selection of wines and beers, greeting cards, specialty gifts, and to round out the selection, tobacco products and those other terrible products, lottery tickets.

The Board of Health wisely decided that it was unfair to single out this one small business and forbid them from selling tobacco, while leaving all their competitors free to sell cigarettes to customers wanting to pick up a bottle of wine, a Powerball quick pick, and if so inclined, maybe a gallon of milk.

Then, very unwisely, they decided it would be fairer while still accomplishing the goal of stifling tobacco sales, to prohibit any and all business in the entire town from selling any type of tobacco product. Oops—a first in the nation ban, that would essentially harm our local businesses while forcing customers to take their business a few miles down the road to any of the many welcoming surrounding towns. For instance, if I were a smoker, it’s nearly equidistant to head for Leominster, with its cheaper wine stores, larger grocery stores, and cigarettes…..Now I often go the opposite way, in to town, to support the local businesses, but I sure wouldn’t do that if it required two trips, which it would were I a smoker (which I’m not).

Adding to the outrage at this idea in town, through a quirk of the law in Massachusetts, the Board of Health has ultimate authority in this matter. There is no way to override their decision. There are just three members of the Board of Health, and if two of them approved this idea, there’d be no more sales of tobacco products in Westminster. The townspeople strongly, fervently, and overwhelming disapproved of the whole idea, including the fact the Board of Health was acting dictatorially, far outside the presumed scope of their jobs, all of which led up to the infamous, aborted Board of Health meeting.

Some in the crowd became too boisterous

The Daily Mail photo

To understand what happened, you have to visualize the context for the meeting. The Westminster Board of Health has two long term members, with the third person, Andrea Crete, being the health agent in the nearby town of Hudson, although she lives in Westminster. Andrea appears to be a true believer in government controlling what’s best for the citizenry, which is not a popular idea in Westminster. The other two members are seemingly more normal people who somehow went along with this idea, which at this point had not yet been approved. The point of this meeting was to gain input from the townspeople.

They sure got it…..at least 600 people showed up, a high percentage furious at the proposal and loaded for bear. People had placards like “don’t tread on me”, “Freedom”, and one fellow was wrapped in an American flag, but generally, in this usually laid back town, people were simply furious. How could a board of three people take away the rights of the entire town to purchase tobacco products, for no apparent gain—our local businesses would suffer, the town could be sued by everyone from Philip Morris to Cumberland Farms, and we didn’t even support the idea?

So picture this—a completely packed elementary school gym, at least sixteen TV crews from major national news outlets, plus reporters from around the world; three board members sitting in the front where they couldn’t be seen due to the size of the crowd, an entire row of people, including lawyers, representing Cumberland Farms, other lawyers and tobacco company people, and a completely inadequate sound system. Anyone sitting or standing more than about thirty feet from the microphone couldn’t hear a thing, leading to much yelling of “we can’t hear you”.

This was a poor start to the festivities, a situation which deteriorated further when Andrea Crete, the true believer chairperson, first showed us a boring PowerPoint with bogus statistics, and then read the ‘rules of engagement’ for the meeting for several minutes, which turned out to be much longer than the meeting lasted. You couldn’t speak unless you had read the five page proposal, you had to reference the portion of the proposal you were addressing, you had to sign in prior to the meeting, and no audible clapping or otherwise signaling approval was allowed. We’re a town used to self government, free expression, and controversy at our Town Meetings. These rules didn’t go over very well at all.

The first person, out of at least 80 signed up to speak, was furious. He stated that although he thought smoking was a disgusting habit, he found this proposal even more disgusting. He was really mad at the board and didn’t hide it, giving the strong impression he completely despised them. These comments elicited plenty of clapping, plus a number of shouts from the back, from both patriots who’d perhaps been hanging out at the local VFW all afternoon, and many people in the back who simply couldn’t hear. The Chair, Ms. Crete, gave us our first warning for excessive clapping and yelling.

The next person up was a Selectman from town, not speaking for the Selectmen (which would have happened later had the meeting lasted that long), who said that the Selectmen were unanimously against the proposal despite the fact he personally detested smoking. This Selectman, Wayne Walker, essentially made the argument that this ban would be harmful to both local business and town finances. He also received a resounding round of applause, and the audience earned another warning from the ever vigilant chairperson.

Next came a high school student who had a carefully crafted argument about how the Board of Health was encroaching on our liberties, but unfortunately no one could hear him, although he too received polite clapping, and then came another citizen who basically told the board they were terrible human beings for proposing this law. That also elicited much clapping, which resulted in Andrea Crete banging her gavel and warning the audience to knock off the clapping as it was forbidden, all the while people continued clapping anyway, plus shouting that they couldn’t hear anything due to the defective sound system.

In the meantime, the “Live Free or Die” crowd with the placards was getting unruly, so one member, his visage now famous for getting evicted on national TV while shouting “Freedom” was escorted by the police from the elementary school gym.

It was over considerably quicker than it began

New York Daily News photo

Andrea then banged her gavel again, inaudibly, and as people continued clapping, declared the meeting closed and ended, and exited the building rapidly under police escort. The crowd booed, clapped, expressed disbelief, complained, and then broke into song, giving a rousing rendition of God Bless America. It was actually quite moving, and I have to say, it was democracy in action, although probably more like it was practiced in colonial times than the way it’s taught in Common Core.

Then, with the meeting ended after a mere four speakers, everyone milled around talking. A recall petition was circulated, which later turned out to be non compliant, and people just talked in groups a bit before filing out into the cold autumn air. I heard two out of town gentlemen in suits saying, “this will eventually happen somewhere, but probably not in Westminster”…..I’d guess not.

The Chair of the Board of Health was given a police escort from the building

Boston Herald photo

The end of this saga happened with a whimper instead of a bang, around a week later. At a routine meeting of the Board of Health, which was exceptionally well attended and moved to the police station for both more room and security, one board member almost instantly moved to drop the proposal. It was quickly seconded by another member, a vote was taken, and to the astonishment of Andrea Crete, the motion passed and the proposal was no more.

After that, a week later, there was a party at the VFW. Originally it was a recall signing party, to recall two Board of Health members, but with the issue settled the theme changed to celebrating that 'the people won', which quickly turned to moving on and planning the first annual “Westminster Cracker Festival”, and that was that. Westminster was back to normal until the next time……..just a working, middle class, picturesque, small New England town. The only two lingering issues are that Adrea Crete is running again for the Board of Health, and the Board of Health just recently began requiring a permit to sell electronic cigarettes, in addition to a permit to sell tobacco products. The timing is strange, but it's a minimal fee, and as of now the only store selling the 'vapes' is Circle K.

All in all, it was a victory for democracy: The Board (or at least 2/3rds of them) listened to the people, and a dumb idea was discarded. It isn’t that people in Westminster like to smoke….a very small proportion do, but rather it was a combination of feeling that it was your own decision, and even more importantly, that if there was going to be a ban on tobacco sales, it wasn’t starting here. As the old saying goes, the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. Westminster certainly didn’t want to be the first mouse, and didn’t even want the cheese.

And then it was over, "out like a lamb"

Boston Globe photo

If everything wasn’t so ephemeral these days, Westminster would be world famous. Luckily fame only lasts about a day, although in our town’s case it was more like a month. When I meet people as part of my consulting work, they still say, “I think I’ve heard of that town”, but in another couple months they’ll just be saying, “Westminster? Where's that?”