Hartford Mulls Tobacco Controls

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/23/2017 12:27:13 AM
Modified: 4/23/2017 12:28:54 AM

Hartford — Less than a mile up Route 5 from Hartford High School, at a gas pump outside the Cumberland Farms convenience store, a large green sign advertises “cigarettes as low as $5.89,” while inside the store, a trio of clerks ring up customer purchases in front of a wall of tobacco products advertising e-cigarettes as “a new experience,” and boasting about the “master flavor” of other tobacco products.

Displays like these, not far from the high school and middle school complex, are what prompted Selectwoman Becca White and other town leaders to begin thinking about placing new townwide restrictions on advertising tobacco.

White, who is in her 20s, said that when Cathy Hazlett, executive director of Health Connections of the Upper Valley, approached her last year and expressed concerns about the sale of flavored tobacco and other products that might be particularly tempting to young people, it struck a chord.

“In Hartford, when I was growing up, I would walk by Cumberland Farms and the Mobil Station, and (see) advertisements,” she said. “Seeing how heavily it was displayed, it could have an impact. It clicked for me.”

White, other members of the Selectboard, and Hazlett began talking about whether the town should draft new restrictions on a variety of inhalable products — flavored cigarettes, “vapes” and, should the state legalize it, marijuana.

As a result of those talks, Town Manager Leo Pullar said he is preparing to present a variety of options for consideration to the Selectboard during its May 9 meeting.

“We’re in the early stages,” Pullar said Friday.

“There’s a whole litany of things we can do that still allows them to sell it to the right kind of customer and not to sell it to youths,” Pullar said. One approach, he said, would be to “get it out of the pegboards sitting behind the cash registers.”

Pullar said the town will consider restrictions such as requiring stores to keep tobacco products out of the line of sight of customers, limiting the amount of window space that can be used to advertise them, or eliminating window advertising for such products altogether.

“Our initial focus is on flavored tobacco which is sold, they say, in 13 businesses in the town of Hartford,” said Pullar.

Mike Morris, another member of the Selectboard, said he thinks advertisements helped convince him to pick up a cigarette for the first time when he was young.

All the advertisers made me think I wanted to smoke,” he said. “The Marlboro Man, I wanted to be macho like him.”

But over the course of a three-decade smoking habit, he said, he learned about the negative health effects of smoking, and finally, with difficulty, mustered the willpower to quit for good 12 years ago.

Smoking, he said, “serves no purpose.”

At the same time, he said, “You have to have the ability to do what you want to do. I’m not going to tell you you can’t smoke. Freedom is important too.”

Hazlett said a handful of Vermont communities, including Royalton and Weathersfield, have enacted or are considering restrictions on the marketing of adult products to young people. But she said Hartford might be the first to specifically target flavored tobacco.

With a rush of economic development stimulating all sorts of new businesses in Hartford, Pullar said, the town is trying to get ahead of the curve, before businesses that are built around the sale of such products move in.

“I don’t believe we have any vape shops here, but it wouldn’t take long to figure out there are no vape shops here,” he said. “There’s an untapped market. We’re just trying to be preventive.”

After conducting a 2014 statewide survey of adult smokers, the Vermont Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Program found that tobacco use among adults has continued to decline, to 18 percent, and that half of those smokers had tried to quit.

The survey found that about one in four Vermonters noticed tobacco product advertisements in stores

“Smokers were more likely to notice these tobacco advertisements than non-smokers and younger smokers were more likely to notice these than older smokers,” according to the report, which also found that half of chew, snuff and electronic cigarette users opted for flavored versions at least some of the time.

The percentage of high school students who smoked regularly and who reported that they got their cigarettes directly from a store increased, from 7 percent in 2013 to 9 percent in 2015.

White said Hartford has the potential to be a leader in the state in discouraging the use of tobacco by young people.

Another state survey, targeted specifically to risk behaviors in youth, found that tobacco use is declining among high school students, from 32 percent of students having smoked a whole cigarette in 2005, to 21 percent in 2015. Just 11 percent reported having smoked in the past 30 days in 2015.

While Hartford students taking the survey generally reported slightly lower rates of cigarette usage compared with the state as a whole, the number who said they’d tried a flavored tobacco product was higher, 28 percent, compared with 24 percent statewide.

Hazlett said that, because more students have tried flavored tobacco products than smoked cigarettes, flavored tobacco is a high priority for her and other health advocates.

“It’s also how these flavored tobacco products are marketed,” she said. “If you look at the packaging, often they’re made to look like candy. That’s a deliberate attempt to market to children.”

White and Pullar said the intent is to begin a discussion with the community, not to dictate any particular course of action.

Hartford residents who were asked about the measure on Friday afternoon offered a variety of perspectives.

Maddie Ford, 19, of Hartford, said that, though she smokes herself, it’s not something she’s proud of.

“When I’m around my younger nephews and cousins, I tell them not to do it,” she said.

Ford, who began smoking at 17, said she would support restrictions on advertisements targeted to young people.

But Tyler Forten, a 24-year-old Derby, Vt., resident who was visiting Hartford to do a job for the contracting company he works for, said he doesn’t oppose restricting advertising, but he doesn’t believe it will help.

“I smoke,” he said. “That’s why my younger brother started. It’s more of a community thing, a social thing.”

Cindy Bicknell, an Upper Valley resident who works in Hartford, said it makes sense to restrict advertisements for flavored tobacco.

“If it’s attractive to children, then they should do it,” she said.

Charles Muhlaupi and his 22-year-old son, Charlie Muhlaupi, both of whom recently moved to Hartford, didn’t exactly disagree with each other, but their answers had a different emphasis.

“People have to make their own decision,” said the younger Muhlaupi, who smokes.

But the elder Muhlaupi said that, though he supports people making up their own minds, tobacco companies should be required to do more to ensure that they do so with all of the available information.

“I’m anti-tobacco,” he said. “They shouldn’t be made to gloss over the bad effects. They should be held accountable for the side effects they cause.”

Morris said the issue ultimately is one that should be decided by the community as a whole, not by the seven-member Selectboard.

“I don’t think seven people in the town should be making a decision,” he said. “Put it up for ballot or something.”

When Pullar presents options to the Selectboard, he also plans to include possible restriction options for the sale of marijuana and marijuana-related products, like bongs and roach clips.

It is not legal to sell marijuana in the state of Vermont, but on Friday, the Senate voted 21-9 to approve a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana sales in the state. The bill is considered unlikely to be approved by the House. The issue became a hot topic last year, when a group of lawmakers made a big, though ultimately unsuccessful, push for legalization.

While only 20 percent of students reported having smoked a whole cigarette in the 2015 state survey, 36 percent said they’d tried marijuana.

Public Policy Polling conducted a survey of Vermonters on March 20 that found that Vermonters support allowing adults 21 and over to use, possess, and securely grow marijuana, 57 percent to 39 percent.

White said she personally favors legalizing marijuana, but she supports Vermont lawmakers who have tried to ensure that it is done “the Vermont way,” a phrase that’s come to mean legalization in a way that would favor small, Vermont-based operations and discourage large out-of-state corporations from benefiting from marijuana sales.

White said she welcomes a discussion in Hartford on the issue.

“What role do we see it playing in our community?” she asked. “Do we want any distribution centers, or not? We want to do it the Vermont way, but we also want to do it the Hartford way.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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