Anti-smoking program to close; strapped state redirects funds
By ROBERT LOVINGER, Standard-Times staff writer
"That kind of scares me," Tom Fantozzi said.
The Acushnet health agent was imagining life without Judith Coykendall.
Thanks in part to her work, he argued, "If you light up a cigarette in a restaurant in Acushnet, everybody's going to know about it."
For eight years, Ms. Coykendall has spread the word about second-hand smoke and prodded health boards to ban smoking wherever people gather.
She has helped towns crack down on sales of cigarettes to minors, training store clerks and overseeing compliance checks.
That's all over, for now. By the month's end, drastic state budget cuts will force Ms. Coykendall to shut down the program she heads.
Prevention and Cessation of Tobacco is an offshoot of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program, whose budget has been slashed from $65 million to $5 million since March.
Ms. Coykendall has been PACT's regional director from the beginning, overseeing the effort in Acushnet, Freetown, Lakeville, Marion, Mattapoisett and Rochester.
"She's been indispensable," Mr. Fantozzi said. "We're extremely disappointed that the governor took out all that funding."
Not everyone is sorry to see PACT laid to rest.
"Gee, that's too bad," Laura Hirschmann said sarcastically.
When battles over smoking bans were raging in local cities and towns a couple of years ago, Ms. Hirschmann, a Dartmouth resident, was spokeswoman for the now-dormant Southcoast Citizens for Freedom.
A loose collection of restaurant owners and Libertarians, the group fought smoking bans, usually in vain.
Ms. Hirschmann applauded the state's defunding of PACT. "If I were a state rep, I would be looking at programs that are more critical to people." She cited homelessness and access to health care.
"The fact that the government was stealing money from people who use a product -- to install regulations against those same people -- is horrible," she said. "It's totally immoral."
"For years and years," she said, "everybody has known that smoking is bad for you."
People need to make their own healthy decisions, Ms. Hirschmann said. "We need to recapture individual responsibility in this country."
The absence of PACT could leave an opening for anti-regulation advocates to try to roll back some of the rules, she said.
Why has PACT lost its funding?
"I don't understand it, quite frankly," Ms. Coykendall said. "This is a public health program that's become a national model."
She cited statistics claiming that state efforts have led to decreases in smoking by 30 percent among adults, 27 percent among high school students and 50 percent among pregnant women.
For every public dollar spent on tobacco control, two dollars worth of health care spending is saved, she argued.
Beyond advocating for regulations and helping enforce them, PACT has taken anti-smoking education into schools and health clinics, and provided treatment to help smokers quit.
All those efforts will cease at the end of the month. Some people might be able to continue treatment in Plymouth or Fall River, where programs might survive, Ms. Coykendall said.
In 1992, voters passed a state referendum increasing the cigarette tax by 25 cents. Some of the proceeds helped create the state tobacco program.
During the eight years of PACT's existence, five of the six towns under Ms. Coykendall's supervision have enacted laws restricting second-hand smoke. The sixth, Freetown, is considering regulations.
"PACT has done its work hand in hand with boards of health," Ms. Coykendall said. "We give them technical assistance, journal articles, even legal advice."
On the road toward regulation, she brought state experts to public hearings and testified herself. She went out and explained the new policies to restaurant owners.
"It's really an education thing," Mr. Fantozzi said. "The education aspect is more important than enforcement, and that's what she did."
She organized teams of teens, usually volunteers, who would try to buy cigarettes in stores or from vending machines in bars.
In Acushnet, Mr. Fantozzi said, Ms. Coykendall was tireless, persuading bar owners to move cigarette machines away from front doors, where teens could easily buy and run.
She also had success persuading convenience stores not to place attractive cigarette advertising displays at cash registers, he added.
"Our biggest concern is that we'll see teen smoking on the rise because we can't do compliance checks at stores," Ms. Coykendall said.
Since she began such checks, she said, "I watched compliance go from 60 or 70 percent to 95 or 100 percent."
Mr. Fantozzi suspects that without "constant surveillance" by someone like Ms. Coykendall, cigarette vendors will be tempted to pay less attention to regulations.
"Our hope was to have a totally smoke-free region," Ms. Coykendall lamented. But she suspects that the anti-smoking trend will now be slowed. One reason is that overburdened boards of health will have a hard time picking up the work she did.
Mr. Fantozzi agreed. Acushnet health board members might have to use nights and weekends to do the work, he said.
The state is turning over more and more duties to local health boards, he noted. With less money and more responsibility, "something's going to have to give. Whether it's checking mosquitoes for West Nile virus or something else, something will have to go by the wayside."
Thanks in large part to the work of Ms. Coykendall, he said, it is illegal to smoke in any public building in Acushnet, and smoking is not allowed in restaurants or bars unless they serve only adults.
While the tax remains in effect, the revenue will now go into the state's general fund, Ms. Coykendall said.
Ms. Coykendall does not know what she will be doing for work once the program ends. "Right now, I'm so busy trying to close up," she said, adding hopefully, "There's a rumor we could get refunded."
Mr. Fantozzi said he has heard that Gov.-elect Mitt Romney hopes to restore at least some of the tobacco control money in January.
In the meantime, Ms. Coykendall worries that at least some of what she accomplished could go up in smoke.
Martha's Vineyard town reverses bar smoking ban
OAK BLUFFS, Mass. (AP) Health officials in this Martha's Vineyard town have reversed a year-old smoking ban in an effort to get smokers off of street corners and sidewalks and back into bars.
The Board of Health voted 2-1 last week to repeal the town's ban on smoking in bars, a little more than a year after the same board imposed the measure.
The reversal was apparently the first by a city or town that has enacted smoking regulations, according to Roseanne Pawelec, a spokeswoman for the state department of Public Health.
Downtown barkeepers said the smoking ban drained their income, and put the problem out onto the street where smokers gathered and cigarette butts accumulated.
It was that argument that convinced the board to end the ban.
''The (cigarette) butts are a major problem, and so is the language you hear. They've taken the bar atmosphere and put it in the street,'' said Health Board chairman Joe Alosso, who voted to eliminate the ban.
Local boards of health on the Vineyard banned smoking in restaurants five years ago, but allowed smoking in bars. Last year, both Edgartown and Oak Bluffs extended the ban to bars.
''We would view what has happened in Oak Bluffs as an isolated response to a particular situation,'' Pawelec said. ''This is the first (reversal) we're aware of but we don't see this as a barometer of things to come.''
According to DPH, 198 of the state's 355 cities and towns have enacted some form of smoking restrictions beyond state code.
By Associated Press, 6/3/2002 17:45
Smoking ban to be revisited
By Patricia O'Connor, Standard-Times staff writer
WAREHAM -- In response to complaints from restaurateurs that the town's weeks-old smoking ban is decimating business, local health officials yesterday said they would be willing to meet with business owners and revisit the issue.
But they say while they're mindful of the negative financial impact the ban is having on some eateries, their goal was and is to protect the public from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.
"We've told the restaurant group from the very start we are always open to talking to them again. We're open to reconsidering it at some time. But this indeed is a public health issue, not a monetary issue," said Dr. Charles Gleason, a member of the town's Board of Health.
Carl Wakefield, the town's health agent, said local officials have tried to be sensitive to challenges restaurants and social clubs have faced since the ban went into effect back on Oct. 15.
Mr. Wakefield said the town's health department has not launched any large-scale effort to enforce the smoking ban, despite the fact that representatives of the Cape Cod Tobacco Control Program recently conducted an informal sting operation which revealed that some establishments weren't adhering to the ban and in some cases were violating the no-smoking rule.
Those establishments won't face any repercussions -- not yet, anyway -- Mr. Wakefield said.
"We're letting the restaurants use their good judgment and allowing them to work through this thing without harassing them," he said. "We're cognizant of the fact it may be difficult for the first few months, and we share their concerns because some of the towns near us aren't addressing this."
While a number of SouthCoast communities -- including New Bedford, Fairhaven, Dartmouth and Mattapoisett -- have or plan to enact smoking bans, the towns abutting Wareham -- Plymouth, Bourne and Marion -- have not.
Wareham restaurateurs contend that their customers are traveling to establishments in those communities where they're allowed to light up.
During a meeting with the Board of Selectmen Tuesday, more than 60 people came to voice opposition to the smoking ban. They described the ban's inherent unfairness in making the town a non-smoking island, surrounded by communities where smoking is allowed in eateries.
While they say they understand the merits of the argument that a ban should not be imposed in Wareham until adjacent communities are forced to do the same, both Dr. Gleason and Mr. Wakefield wondered aloud why so many dozens of people had come out to voice their frustrations over the smoking ban to the Board of Selectmen when Board of Health meetings on the same topic drew only a handful of participants.
Still, they expressed willingness to continue to work with business owners.
"Personally, I would be very happy to discuss this with the restaurant people once again to see if they can come up with some way that can accommodate them," Dr. Gleason said.
Prior to the implementation of the ban, representatives of town restaurant owners held discussions with the Board of Health over the possibility of installing air filtration systems and partitioning off smoking sections of their buildings to address public health concerns.
'Tired of paying fees,' Northboro man in court
By Sandy Quadros Bowles
Telegram & Gazette Staff
NORTHBORO-- The Northboro Board of Health has taken a service station owner to court over his refusal to pay for a $20 permit to sell tobacco products.
The case will be heard Jan. 30 in Westboro District Court.
Stephen Lowe, owner of Lowe's Service Center, at 36 West Main St., said his refusal to pay the permit fee is a matter of principle, not money.
“I already have a license to sell tobacco from the state,” Mr. Lowe said. “I'd classify it as double-dipping.”
The $20 permit the town is requiring to sell tobacco is part of new smoking regulations that went into effect in October, said John P. Wallace, Board of Health agent.
In April, the Board of Health approved regulations prohibiting smoking in most public places and banning the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 18 years old.
The regulations included the requirement that businesses pay $20 for a permit to sell tobacco products.
Mr. Wallace said the local permit differs from the state permit. The town permit allows the board of health to fine businesses that sell tobacco products to minors, he said.
He said the permit process is part of an overall effort “to curb youth access to tobacco products” and to “curtail this addiction.”
Money from the permits goes into the town's general fund.
Mr. Lowe said he would be willing to pay for the permit if the money were used for a program to help youths stop smoking. As it now stands, he said, “Who knows what they're doing with it?”
“Towns are running rampant -- charging fees for everything they do,” he said. He pays about $3,000 in fees for such things as having a food franchise on his property and having gas pumps and underground gasoline tanks, he said.
“I'm tired of paying fees,” he said.
He also questioned the role of the Route 9 East Tobacco Control Program, an agency established in 1995 under the umbrella of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and funded by the state tobacco tax. Massachusetts voters approved a referendum question that set a tax on tobacco in 1992.
The tobacco control program works with the boards of health in six communities -- Ashland, Westboro, Northboro, Southboro, Shrewsbury and Grafton -- to help them develop and enforce tobacco-related regulations, said Denise Phaneuf, director of the Route 9 East Tobacco Control Program.
She said the agency has hired an inspector who will visit businesses to provide education and proper tobacco-related signs. The inspector tells business owners that compliance checks will be done by the town at least quarterly to ensure that tobacco regulations are followed.
“We're there to assist merchants, to do anything we can to help them comply with town regulations,” she said.
Northboro's tobacco permit was developed by the town board of health, she said.
“We as a program do not decide where the funds go,” she said. “It's their regulation.”
Mr. Lowe said his business has been the subject of “stings” to determine if underage youths were being sold tobacco, and the business has never been found to be in violation.
He said his refusal to pay for the permit has other merchants wishing they had done the same.
“Everybody lays down and just pays the fees,” he said. “I'm tired” of it.
Town to drop charges against VFW head who wouldn't pay smoking fine
By Jay Lindsay, Associated Press, 2/6/2001 18:56
BOSTON (AP) They fought in wars, they should be able to smoke at a veterans' bar.
With that thought in mind, Marblehead Veterans of Foreign Wars president Richard Russo defied a town smoking ban, and was headed to a criminal trial for refusing to pay a fine levied against his club.
But under an agreement reached between the town and Post 2005, Russo's court appearance has been canceled. The charges against Russo are to be dropped during a hearing in Lynn District Court Thursday, post lawyer James Walsh said Tuesday.
In return, the post will abandon a civil suit against the town.
Town attorney Marc Miller said the deal settles a debate over the town's right to restrict the veterans' activities in their own club that was dividing this seaside community on Boston's North Shore.
''It's in the best interests of everyone involved,'' Miller said. ''People were taking sides, writing letters. That's not what anybody needs, any town.''
Russo, for his part, wasn't ready to settle.
''I would have gone through with it,'' he said. ''But I've got to do what the club wants.''
The deal comes after a Supreme Judicial Court ruling Jan. 19 upheld the rights of local boards of health to enforce smoking bans, and undermined the post's civil court case.
The post had argued that because state law allowed smoking in bars, Marblehead didn't have the right to ban it. But after the state's highest court backed the town of Barnstable's smoking ban, the post's civil case couldn't go forward, Walsh said.
Russo, 66 and a non-smoker, became involved after health inspectors caught a woman smoking in the VFW bar in July, and fined the post $200. The smoking ban was enacted last April.
Russo refused to pay the fine, and the town filed criminal charges against him.
Walsh said both sides took hits in the ensuing public relations battle, with the post ''swimming against the political tide'' that sees bars and restaurants banning smoking.
''On the other hand,'' Walsh said, ''there is an enormous PR issue when a town is trying to take rights away from individuals who fought to protect our rights and freedom.''
Russo said the VFW complied with the ordinance because it clearly posts warnings that no smoking is allowed, and asks people who light cigarettes to put them out. If they don't comply, it's not his job to stop people from smoking, Russo said.
''We're not supposed to be police officers,'' he said. ''We're not supposed to be Big Brother.''
Russo said he's not going to ask an 80-year-old veteran to smoke outside. He added that nobody forces anyone to come to the VFW bar.
''People down here are smoking,'' he said. ''You don't want to come in here, go home. We don't care.''
But board of health chairman Carl Goodman said Russo must strictly enforce the ordinance.
''He'd better be in control of his establishment,'' he said. ''Every other proprietor in town is.''
Walsh said he thought the town might revisit the ordinance, and perhaps make adjustments that would make it less restrictive. He cited an exception to the ordinance that allows smoking when a room is rented by a private group as evidence the board is conscious of the privacy issues the ban raises.
But Goodman said he didn't think any changes were necessary. The VFW bar is open to the public, he said, and banning smoking there is in the interest of public health.