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Blunt wraps, hemp products, smoking bars, and beyond: Pittsfield Board of Health considers tobacco loopholes

An electronic sign indicating what date you must be born after to buy tobacco in Massachusetts.
Josh Landes
/
WAMC

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts Board of Health is considering new tobacco regulations to ensure that the city’s current controls address gray areas in state laws.

The board heard a presentation about tobacco control from Jim Wilusz, Executive Director for the Tri Town Health Department, at its monthly meeting on June 1st.

“We’ve been administering the tobacco awareness program for going on maybe 28 years now, since 1994," said Wilusz. "I've been working in tobacco control for 22 years, pretty much my whole entire public health career.”

The oldest health district in Massachusetts, the TTHD was created in 1929 in response to a hazardous milk outbreak in Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge. Wilusz told the Pittsfield Board of Health that when it comes to tobacco control, the pandemic shut down all efforts to carry out compliance checks and education on recent updates to state policies in 2019.

“What has happened over the last year plus, we have the state regulation, and then we have local regulation," he said. "So you can have more policies more stringent than the state — like capping, for example, blunt wrap bands, retailer trainings. And so there's this set of regulations over here locally, and then there's the new state law over here, and they're just not meeting in the middle. And it does cause confusion to boards of health. It does cause confusion to retailers.”

While he praised Pittsfield’s tobacco regulations, the city still faces its struggles.

“Pittsfield is still very high in smoking prevalence and smoking during pregnancy," said Wilusz. "It came down a little bit pre-pandemic, I think because of the local policy efforts. But I think coming out of the pandemic, we expect it to go back up again, for obvious reasons: Substance abuse, opioid use, as mental health challenges going on, and vaping is up again, and so on and so forth.”

Wilusz explained that efforts to control tobacco products on any level in Massachusetts becomes a David vs. Goliath battle.

“What ends up happening in tobacco control is we respond locally, Big Tobacco responds," he said. "we respond locally, Big Tobacco responds. And the industry is going to constantly shift, it will never go away. Even though we have really good state laws now, Big Tobacco is a billion dollar corporation. They make their money on sales to young people, young adults, and they're going to constantly change.”

With that, he laid out areas where state and local policies have created blind spots for the tobacco industry to exploit.

“This new state law captures a lot of the flavored tobacco and vaping and stuff," said Wilusz. "What it doesn't capture is flavored rolling papers, because it's not a tobacco product that doesn't have nicotine. And what's happening now is the industry is shifting once again. And they're coming out with, like, hemp cigarettes, or hemp wraps, or these things called cones. They're not made of tobacco, they don't have nicotine. And so the state law actually doesn't capture that, so if you have a pack of flavored hemp cigarettes in a retail store, that legally can be sold.”

Wilusz recommended Pittsfield ensure its controls address those products to avoid onerous fines for local retailers.

“In some boards of health, a distributor will mistakenly give them a flavor in some municipalities, and they'll hit them with $1,000 fine," he said. "And they're like, well, we had flavor hemps, I thought this was the same thing. And it's causing confusion. And so Adams decided last year, we're getting rid of all types of flavors in the retail environment just to make it easier for everybody.”

Another possible loophole in Pittsfield’s tobacco laws is that they don’t explicitly prohibit smoking bars. Wilusz said that while only 24 such establishments exist in Massachusetts – and none in Berkshire County – it doesn’t mean they couldn’t eventually appear.

“A couple of towns that I've worked with in Berkshire County, had actually had applications that came to them in real time," he told the board. "And they're like, oh, we’ve got to rewrite our regulations. And I’m like, no, you can't. Once an application is submitted, you can't retroactively go back and change it.”

Wilusz told the board it’s not easy to actually carry out tobacco control in the Berkshires.

“We don't get a lot of funding for this, and we're doing this across the county and the state doesn't give millions of dollars to local programs for tobacco control, unfortunately," he said. "It disappears into the black hole on Beacon Hill. So it's still underfunded just like everything else we do on local public health.”

The Pittsfield Board of Health said it would review the proposed regulations for discussion at its July meeting.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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