Board of Health Considers Smoking Bars, Blunt Wraps, and More

Local Boards of Health (BoH) are “independently organized for the delivery of local public health services and operate autonomously from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.”

The Holliston Board of Health recently went through the state’s “yes/no” guidance checklist designed to help boards review policies regarding the sale of tobacco and related smoking products.

The tobacco industry changes quickly. The last time the regulations were changed (2018), vaping was front and center and cannabis was not legal. The Holliston Board is presently considering four changes.

  1. Smoking Bars (currently banned)

The state Department of Public Health (DPH) defines a smoking bar (sometimes known as a cigar bar or a hookah bar) as “an establishment that exclusively occupies an enclosed indoor space and is primarily engaged in the retail sale of tobacco products for consumption by customers on the premises.” This includes vape cartridges. Smoking bars are not restaurants. DPH requires that:

1. A majority (at least 51%) of the bar’s revenue is from on-site sale of tobacco products;
2. Revenue from the sale of food, alcohol, or other beverages is incidental (emphasis added) to the sale of tobacco products…”

Before a smoking bar can be established, the city or town must allow for them in their regulations. Ultimately the vendor will also need a state permit. Holliston bans them now, but the current Board is considering reversing that ban.

Objections:

Youth and Family Services Director Jackie Winer

Jaclyn Winer, Director of Youth and Family Services and Eva Stahl, Co-Chair of the Holliston Drug and Alcohol Awareness Coalition attended the September 13, 2022, BoH meeting and spoke against allowing smoking bars.

They provided data and an overview of their concerns about the impact that changes might have on the “culture” of the community. They voiced concern about the mental health issues that are evident among youth today, and that the Board of Health should not provide for more opportunities for young people to emulate unhealthy behaviors and/or to access tobacco and other substances illegally.

Eva Stahl called for aligning strategies to deal with mental health across government. HDAAC recently received a $625,000 federal drug-free community grant aimed at better education, intervention, and community-wide effort in creating healthy environments for youth.

Jay Leary, Board member stated,” We can’t limit legal activities no matter how abhorrent to us. We need to allow people to participate and make their own decisions. Let people make adult decisions.”

Nearby, Milford closed their smoking bar and Framingham, Marlboro and Natick all banned them. The nearest smoking bars are in Boston and Worcester.

Resident Deb Moore, a registered nurse, said, “If we allow a cigar smoking lounge it says a lot about what we are supporting. Kids are impressionable. And the BOH supports that.”

Jay Leary said issues regarding the youth or mental health are not on the table. “This is not an underage concern; this is for adults. I’m not a big advocate of smoking.”

Eva Stahl asked that officials take a clear-eyed look and recognize trends in our town relating to the mental health crisis. “We do not need more easy opportunities to access tobacco and other substances.”

Josh Mann, chair of BOH, said that they intend to work with the Planning Board to ensure that such a bar would be located safely, not near a school or where there is risk of secondhand smoke. “A consenting adult having a cigar in an industrial park is OK.”

Cynthia Listewnik, resident, and member of the School Committee, asked what the genesis of the changes was.  She voiced concerns that Vape City is adjacent to a drivers’ ed school.

Holliston Health Director Scott Moles

Given the “adult” permit status of Vape City, Health Director Scott Moles explained that it is conceivable that they could ask to build a separate room for smoking onsite. Smoking bars are for people 21 and older.

The Board assured the attendees that there is no one person or entity trying to establish a smoking bar, and this is a routine review of regulations.

Scott Moles suggested that the better approach might be to maintain the ban as is until the Board can talk with the Planning Board and develop criteria for bars and the BoH gets community input. Jackie Winer agreed and said, “Let’s open the discussion to the community.” No official vote has been taken although all members have verbalized support.

2. Allow Sale of Blunt Wraps

The Board is also considering allowing the sale of “blunt wraps,” i.e. tobacco leaves that replace paper wrappers to enable smoking of a substance. Blunts are hollowed out cigars where marijuana can replace tobacco. Presumably they can be filled with any smokable product.

According to Healthline.com, “Because cigar wrappers are more porous than rolling papers, the burning is less complete, resulting in smoke that has higher concentrations of toxins.”

Ten of the 13 MetroWest Tobacco Control District communities ban the sale of wraps.

3. Reverse the Goal to Reduce Tobacco Permits

In 2018 vaping was a significant problem in the High School and students who were part of the Holliston Drug and Alcohol Awareness Coalition and anti-vaping efforts presented a petition to the Board asking “to keep our youth safe and healthy” by reducing the number of retail tobacco outlets long term.

That Board voted to reduce the number of permits by attrition –  if a business closed, the permit would not transfer. The current discussion is to reverse that. This BOH supports a simple cap of 10, all permits transferable.

Any tobacco retail store could be used for smoking lounges with modifications of the space. Including Holliston, seven of the 13 MetroWest Tobacco Control District communities have a reducing cap on permits including Hopkinton, Millis, Ashland, Natick, Wayland and Sudbury.

4. First time offense selling to minor

The Board discussed the duration of suspensions of retail permits for first time violations of selling to a minor. They want to ensure that the local regulations are clear about all penalties. The state says suspensions can be for 1-30 days. The Board is inclined to adopt a three-day suspension, though Cheryl Sbarra, Counsel to the Board from the MA Association of Health Boards, recommended not setting the length of time “in stone.” She will provide them with a draft “cease and desist” letter.

The Board of Health will next meet on September 27 at 7:30, remotely.  In the meantime, Moles will talk with the Town Planner about existing zoning and what might be needed if the BoH allows smoking bars.

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Mary Greendale

3 Comments

  1. Missy McElligott on September 23, 2022 at 7:42 am

    I’m shocked that Holliston would even consider this. The board of health should be making data-driven decisions about the health impacts to their community. Issues related to “youth and mental health “SHOULD be on the table, since they will certainly be impacted by adult decisions. Do not sell our town out for money BOH.

  2. John Moore on September 23, 2022 at 8:51 am

    I am very disappointed in the position of the Board of Health. Everyone knows tobacco is addicting. The companies put as much nicotine in their products as they can to get you addicted. The Board of Health should be promoting healthy behaviors. If the Board of Health supports smoking bars in Holliston the Board of Health’s name should be changed to the Board of Unhealth.

  3. Stephen Nault on September 23, 2022 at 9:29 am

    Of course smoking bars should be allowed and allowed in any zone where the sale of alcoholic beverages is allowed. What we are seeing here is the rise in the “I know better what you should be allowed to do with yourself than you do” lunatics.

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