By Michael Gaffney
An unelected, unaccountable board has decided that you are no longer free to purchase products sold legally. Your elected officials had voted against the ban, but in Worcester, your vote means nothing. The precedent is horrible.
The ban is on the sale of flavored tobacco and it was forced upon our city by the Board of Health. As a disclosure, I vehemently opposed the creation of the Board of Health.
The banning of the sale of flavored tobacco is certainly not an item that will cause mass protests and is likely to be cheered by many as a good thing to do. But it isn’t for the following reasons:
Reducing smoking has obvious benefits; however, it cannot be shown that banning convenience stores that sell tobacco from selling flavored tobacco has any benefit. Keep in mind, the convenience stores will still sell tobacco, so the same cashier that can check an ID for the sale of a pack of cigarettes is somehow completely unable to check an ID if the pack of cigarettes contains any flavor. It is a nonsensical, feel-good, ban that has serious financial impacts on convenience stores, residents, and commercial tax collections.
The ban had failed to pass the City Council every time it was brought. The first time, in September of 2014, I called out the former director of the city Division of Public Health for appearing to mislead the City Council over the intentions of the ban. The matter was quickly sent to committee for review.
In June of 2014, the proposed ban was voted down in committee. Nick Kotsopoulos with the Telegram & Gazette reported as follows:
“The other proposal would have restricted the sale of flavored tobacco products to smoking bars and retail tobacco stores, thus prohibiting their sale in convenience stores.
There were concerns among some committee members about having the city mandate how businesses can sell certain products. . .
Councilor-at-Large Michael T. Gaffney said he opposed the recommendation . . . saying the city should not be telling retailers how to sell legal products.
‘We allegedly have a capitalist, free-market system, so I have to disagree with that idea,’ he said. ‘To just say we’re going to force retailers to do this, that or something else, it runs contrary to the thought of any business plan. I don’t get where this is actually going, and I completely disagree with this idea.’
Meanwhile, District 2 Councilor Philip P. Palmieri said that while flavored tobacco products are ‘troubling’ to him, he disagrees with the idea of limiting where they could be sold.
He said if those products cannot banned all together, then their sale should not be restricted to just tobacco stores or hookah bars.
‘While flavored tobacco products trouble me to no end, limiting where they could be sold would end up adversely impact one group of small businesses and would like likely create another (tobacco stores) where these products could be sold.
David Murdock, president of Honey Farms and representing the New England Convenience Store Association, said convenience store owners have been unfairly demonized as bad retailers for years.
He said tobacco sales represent 30 percent to 50 percent of the total sales in convenience stores. Because it’s such an important product, he said, store owners are not going to sell any of those products to minors and thus run the risk of getting caught and losing their license.”
The testimony from Mr. Murdock for Honey Farms and the New England Convenience Store Association pointed out that a convenience store investment cost is somewhere in the amount of $250,000 to $500,000. While an investment for a smoke shop is less than $75,000. And that sales revenue for a convenience store from tobacco is 30-50% of total sales.
The ban reduces profit for convenience stores and makes the investment in the same less attractive while growing the number of smoke shops opening around the City. A reduction in convenience stores reduces choice for our residents. It is a return to segmented shopping and specialty stores from decades past. Instead of a quick ride to a convenience store, residents are forced to go to the shopping center because there are less convenience stores. Meanwhile, the City is quickly becoming littered with unsightly smoke shops that are generally poorly maintained and contribute significantly less to the City’s tax coffers than a convenience store that has 6x’s the value. When the profits of a business are reduced, the likely investment and reinvestment in the business is also reduced.
The ban is meaningless and ineffective. It is just a feel-good measure passed without consideration of the financial impacts to the City. It sets a bad precedent that will be repeated. The Council has been looking for some way to push through Mayor Petty’s tax increases without taking responsibility for doing so (see the prior article on the 3% tax increase on real estate). It is foreseeable that Mayor Petty’s penny tax could be imposed on soft drinks, candy, or the vice du jour as determined by Board of Health.
We were told that they wouldn’t subvert the vote of the City Council when they were created over my objection, yet here we are. They have the power to limit your rights, convenience, and money.