The Watertown Board of Health is considering raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco to 21 in town, but some stores and their fans do not want to see the change.
This week, the board held a hearing to discuss changes to Watertown’s tobacco regulations. Probably the biggest change would be to raise the age when it is legal to buy cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco and nicotine products from 19 to 21.
Donna Moultrup, interim Director of Health said one of the main reasons for the change is to prevent youths from getting their hand on cigarettes.
“Research has shown that young children 12 and 14 years old are getting cigarettes from people age 18-21,” Moultrup said. “If people under 21 can’t buy it then they can’t give it to them.”
She also argued that other town, such as Belmont, have already made the change and it is a movement spreading around the state.
Mike Digregorio, owner of Cigar and Lounge on Dexter Street, said the his business would be hurt by the change.
“It is crazy that (the minimum age) would be 21 in Watertown and people can go five minutes to Waltham and get tobacco at age 18,” Digregorio said.
Some regular customers of Cigar and Lounge came to support Digregorio. Keith Langston of Watertown said he has met a lot of people he now considers close friends at the store. He hangs out with people ranging from age 19 to over 60 there, and people make some great work and career contacts.
Keith St. John said he drives past other cigar stores on his ride of more than an hour from Marlborough to go to the Cigar and Lounge. The group also supports nearby businesses.
“We eat at restaurants in the neighborhood and go to the shops,” St. John said.
Mike Sullivan, who runs the Tedeschi Market on Main Street, also sees his store being impacted.
“I think this will affect my business with the shrinking of the customer base,” Sullivan said.
Town Councilor Tony Palomba spoke in favor of raising the minimum age to 21 at the Board of Health meeting. He said he believes it will cut youth smoking and overall smoking rates in general.
Watertown’s current minimum age of 19 is a year older than the state’s requirement. Digregorio said he does not have a big problem with minimum being 19, but it has caused some tough situations.
“Recently two guys with military IDs who were 18-1/2 and were shipping out to Iraq came in, but I couldn’t sell them cigars,” Digregorio said.
Watertown Health Inspector Dan Repella took off his official hat and spoke as a former U.S. Marine. He opposed increasing the age to 21.
“I am lucky to be alive today. Friends of mine are dead,” Repella said. “An 18 year old can go to war, vote for president – at 18 years old you’re an adult. To (change the minimum age) because everyone is doing it is like all jumping for a bridge.”
Repella said he would vigorously enforce the minimum age of 19, and test stores by sending in underage teens to try to buy tobacco.
Another proposed change, which would require all tobacco products must be sold in its original packaging, could be a problem for the New England Vaping Co., said owner Jamie Richard.
“We get hardware from China, but it would not necessarily be sold in retail packaging,” Richard said.
His store also allows people to sample the liquids used in vaping and electronic cigarettes for a $1 fee. The liquids for the samples are taken out of bottles and loaded into the samplers.
The intentions of the proposal to require items be sold in original packaging are not to hurt Watertown stores, Moultrup said. She said they can be altered to make sure the store is not impacted.
The new regulations would also ban most flavored tobacco, except at tobacco retail stores. The change would also apply to snuff and chewing tobacco. A few flavors would be allowed: mint, menthol and wintergreen.
Smoking will be banned in more places around town, Moultrup said. Added to the list would be playground, parks, recreation facility or athletic field, areas within 25 feet of a municipal building, outdoor seating areas at restaurants and bars, and waiting areas for public transportation if it has at least two walls. Moultrup said that means the shelters at T bus stops would be included.
The Board of Health will continue its consideration of the changes and will vote on them at a future meeting.