'Smokeless' vote lights Mass. town Debate: A 74-year-old's bid to make Winthrop the first to ban tobacco sales has industry, and some residents, puffing in rage.

March 07, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WINTHROP, Mass. -- To his neighbors, Ralph Sirianni is a pleasant old man who rakes leaves off his lawn and serves on Winthrop's three-member, all-volunteer board of health. But to the tobacco industry, the 74-year-old is the enemy.

Sirianni has made his hometown a new front in the legal war against the producers of cigarettes and other tobacco products. Seizing on the New England tradition of "dry" towns where no alcohol can be sold, he has proposed to turn Winthrop -- a blue-collar Boston suburb -- into what experts say would be the first "smokeless" locality in the country. A town referendum on whether to put Sirianni's plan to ban tobacco sales into practice is scheduled for May.

"I just want the citizens here to vote and to make a statement for my town -- that no matter what anyone else thinks, we won't tolerate these products here," says Sirianni, who represented the area in the state legislature from 1964 to 1974. "And it would be nice if other towns would follow our lead."

Fearing just that, the tobacco industry is making its presence felt in Winthrop, a coastal town of 20,000 named for the Massachusetts Bay Colony's first governor, a Puritan who restricted the use of tobacco to "old men alone in fields."

In recent weeks, tobacco companies and affiliated nonprofits have deluged Winthrop residents with informational mailings, set an 800 number and adopted a rallying cry in town: "Resist Prohibition." Convenience stores that depend on cigarette revenue have circulated petitions. Mailings from the National Smokers Alliance target Sirianni by name, accusing the World War II veteran, who spent time in a German POW camp, of being a traitor to his hometown and country.

"The damage to the social and economic life of Winthrop will take years to heal," says one mailing. "For what? To satisfy the ego of one misguided zealot? To make Winthrop a national symbol of repression?"

Legal experts say that Winthrop has caught the new wave in the struggle between public health advocates and cigarette makers. Despite the attention given to federal regulations and state legal action against the industry, some of the most serious attacks on tobacco are at the municipal level, from billboard restrictions to workplace bans to extra taxes.

"Ralph is one of a number of people around the country who are beginning to change the whole debate," says Gregory Connolly, director of the Massachusetts tobacco control program. "Local communities have tremendous power in ensuring public health -- towns might be able to ban nicotine in cigarettes, for example -- and there are so many municipalities, it makes it hard for the industry to keep track of them all."

In fact, Sirianni's plan went undetected for months. The idea came to him last year, as he listened to reports about the lawsuits pursued by several states against the industry. The terms of the tentative settlement indicated to Sirianni that the states were "more concerned about getting money out of the tobacco companies in settlement than protecting the public health."

His post on the board of health, Sirianni thought, offered an opportunity to demonstrate that reducing the use of cigarettes, not money, should be the goal of legal action. Sirianni had taken the unpaid job six years ago, to keep busy in retirement, but by last fall was consulting with the Massachusetts attorney general's office to make sure his proposed regulation could survive legal challenges.

The board typically oversees rubbish collection, health fairs and restaurant inspections. Last fall, Sirianni persuaded the health board's other two members to vote to ban sales of tobacco products inside the town limits. While the board could have enforced the action immediately, Sirianni insisted that townspeople get a chance to vote on it.

"The more I listened to Ralph," says board member William Hayes, a Winthrop firefighter who is also Sirianni's nephew, "the more I felt it was the right thing."

Within a week of the board's vote, the American Cancer Society praised it. Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci hinted he could support the ban. But convenience store owners, many friends of Sirianni, railed against the board. Arthur Spagnola, the owner of the White Hen Pantry on Revere Street, told the local paper: "I think it's unconstitutional. Are they taking up where Hitler left off or what?"

Spagnola's comments were denounced, but liquor store owners continue to protest that cutting off their cigarette revenue -- which can be as much as one-quarter of total receipts -- could force them out of business. The complaint has resonated in Winthrop, in large part because the local grocery store, the Liberty Market, closed two years ago. Now locals must do their shopping in East Boston or Revere.

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