Retired Massachusetts lawmaker wants to rid his town of tobacco Anti-smoking groups hail local initiative that foes labeled unconstitutional

October 12, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WINTHROP, Mass. -- From this well-worn seaside town beneath the planes roaring into the nearby Boston airport, 74-year-old Ralph Sirianni watched the unveiling of the tobacco-industry settlement this summer with mounting discontent.

He also watched teen-agers continue to light up their illicit afternoon smokes not 20 feet from school.

The proposed $368 billion settlement did not go far enough to stop Americans from smoking, he said, because the deal-makers seemed to care more about money than saving the lives of millions of children.

So Sirianni, a retired state lawmaker, decided to do something about it. In the past two weeks he has turned this town of 18,000 people into a new front in the tobacco wars with a proposal that both the American Cancer Society and Tobacco Institute officials said they believed had never been made before.

Just as many American towns and counties have voted to become "dry," banning the sale of all alcohol within their borders, Sirianni argued, Winthrop should become tobacco-free, forbidding the sale of all tobacco products.

As one of the three members of the Winthrop Town Board of Health (a post he took five years ago to keep busy in his retirement, he said), Sirianni put forth the proposal last month and received hearty initial approval from his colleagues -- and a response of pure joy from some anti-smoking groups.

"Everybody was pretty excited and surprised," said Lori Fresina, the coordinator of grass-roots advocacy for the state office of the American Cancer Society. "It's a social experiment the whole country will be watching. More power to them."

Many townspeople, however, are less than thrilled. "I think this is one of the craziest things they've ever wanted to do in this town," said Patsy Cimino, owner of the Meat Market near Town Hall. "All small businesses survive on selling cigarettes," though Cimino said he does not sell them himself.

"Some people don't like to smoke and drink, but you have to respect other people's rights," he added.

One local merchant, the owner of the White Hen Pantry convenience store, in an interview with the local paper the Sun TTC Transcript, called the move unconstitutional and asked whether the Board of Health was taking up where Hitler left off.

Convenience stores get about 27 percent of their sales from cigarettes, said Walker Merryman, vice president of the Tobacco Institute, an industry-financed group.

Some anti-smoking advocates have also remained cautious about the Winthrop initiative, saying they believe more in the gradual route of education and dissuasion than in outright bans.

With so many people addicted to tobacco, "I don't think we have enough science in our hands right now to support prohibition of cigarettes," said Gregory Connolly, director of the State Tobacco Control Program. "We need a lot more scientific investigation on developing less harmful sources of nicotine."

Others point out that anti-smoking measures have tended to come about locally rather than in state legislatures and Congress, where tobacco lobbyists ply their craft. They say Sirianni's move is only the latest in the spread of local bans on smoking in restaurants, buildings and public places.

"Most of the activity that needs to go on over the next few years is on the local level," said Dr. Blake Cady, a leading opponent of smoking in Massachusetts. "It makes the tobacco companies gnash their teeth. They control the Senate and the House in Washington and they can work their magic through money, but they have a difficult time combating these brush fires on the local level."

Rather than try to have the Board of Health impose the ban unilaterally, Sirianni, who smoked two packs a day from the time he was 15 until he was 50, proposed that the ban be discussed at a hearing on Oct. 15 and be voted on by a general town meeting, expected to be held in November.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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