James Wilusz in his Lee office earlier this week.
LEE, Mass. — Dalton, Pittsfield, and Lenox are all currently considering revamping their tobacco regulations as they try to keep ahead of the changing market.
Led by the Tri-town Health Department, towns across Berkshire County have been, at their own pace, becoming tougher on tobacco use.
"I think boards of health are being more aggressive with tobacco control whereas years ago, they were a little more passive," said Tri-town Health Director James Wilusz.
Just a few years ago, a trend of banning the sale of the products in pharmacies spend among towns. Some towns are now crafting similar laws.
Meanwhile some towns are onto the next level of policy, which is capping the number of vendor permits, creating buffer zones around schools and regulating cigar packaging.
The new policies are based on "evidence-based strategies," Wilusz said. The three causes of youth smoking are cost, availability and marketing, he said.
"The adult smoking prevalence rates are starting to go down because the adults can't afford it. But, we're seeing this negative trend going up with the kids because of the new tobacco products. These numbers are not getting better so we are kind of pushing the envelop a little harder," Wilusz said.
While increases in the cigarette tax in recent years have led to a reduction in adult smoking, an array of new products hitting the mark Wilusz says is aimed at children has kept the youth rate stable.
"Regardless of what you see and hear in the media about smoking rates going down, it is still high for youth. Nationally, almost 32 percent of high school students tried cigarettes or smoked a whole cigarette before 13. The numbers are proving otherwise," he said.
For every 10 percent the cigarette price increases, there is a 7 percent increase in adult usage, Wilusz said, but that isn't helping with the youth. Federal or state regulations on new products like electronic cigarettes aren't in the immediate future so the Tri-town Health Department is trying to get local laws in place.
Cigars are a new trend because they are not taxed the same as cigarettes, and therefore more inexpensive. Tobacco companies have jumped on that and have released new products to capitalize. Sold as individuals, the cigars and like products have become more accessible.
"The trend of cigar use in the youth has been slowly increasing since 2006. Ten years ago, we were talking about cheap cigars but nothing like we are now," Wilusz said, displaying an array of colorful packaged, fruit-flavored products.
"Obviously, big tobacco is marketing toward the youth ... If you want to regulate and protect the youth, you've got to do it locally."
The town of Adams is the only town in all of the Berkshires to have adopted regulations on the packaging of the cigars.
In Pittsfield, the Board of Health is now in the process of setting minimum packaging requirements as part of many new regulations.
The city is becoming one of the more "aggressive" in its regulations with capping the number of vendor permits at 25, half of what they currently have. That plan is intended to reduce the availability and will take a number of years. When a business with a permit closes or sold to someone who does not want to sell the items, the permit will expire.
No new permits will be issued.
"Right now, we have 49 and we are looking at implementing a reduction through attrition," said Pittsfield Health Director Gina Armstrong. "We're looking at reducing this to a point of having 25 permits in the city, which could take years. We won't see a dramatic change [at once]."
Pittsfield is also looking to create a buffer zone of 500 feet from a school for a vendor and ban use of tobacco in public parks.
Meanwhile, places like Dalton are adopting language to regulate electronic cigarettes. Wilusz said later he will return to that Board of Health to propose a pharmacy ban. Wilusz says each town he serves is in a different place in which regulations they have. He doesn't want to overwhelm a board with a complete overhaul at once, so each town is taking steps in crafting more and more regulations.
"I think we made a lot of in roads on tobacco in the last four or five years. We've made a lot of regulations," Wilusz said.
The Tri-town Health Department is grant funded through the state Department of Public Health with some of the funds directly aimed at smoking. Each year, Wilusz works with towns to develop new policies. What the organization brings is expertise on the subject and legal support from Boston and state agencies.
"You get a lobbyist that goes into a small town, crafts a letter saying it is illegal. Boards of health are supposed to be working on tobacco but they don't have a lot of experience in these small towns. So the tactic is to scare people away," Wilusz said. "They're in their suits, they've got their letters. It scares people."
Wilusz has spent months working with the Pittsfield Board of Health on its new regulation. Now, the town of Lenox has asked for his advice. Lenox has even expressed interest in even looking into what could be the next trend — raising the age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21. Wilusz recently presented to both the Lenox Board of Health and the Board of Selectmen.
Wilusz said he will provide the board information on that movement but Lenox will also be with Stockbridge and Lee in his push for more cigar packaging regulations.
"We go back every year to work with these boards on educating them and updating them on strategies on how to protect the kids," Wilusz said.
The policy work "never ends" he said because new products and information come out every day. But meanwhile, the organization is overseeing other tobacco regulation projects.
"The policy never goes away because in a year from now, something new will be on the market. It just never goes away. You can't just have a local regulation and have it be in place for 10 years," Wilusz said.
For years, the organization has been performing compliance checks on vendors to make sure they weren't selling to underage children.
In 2007, the numbers weren't decreasing so the organization took it another step further. They crafted a formal training program for employees to pass before working. Pittsfiled, Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, Otis, Lanesborough and Monterey were all on board with it.
"We mandated that in those communities in 2007 and we have seen our compliance rate numbers completely drop," Wilusz said.
Just last year the program was converted from a classroom-based one to online.
"We're the only program in the entire state that does this employee training," he said.
The group is working with housing authorities to turn public units smoke-free. This August more than 2,500 units will be smoke-free, Wilusz said.
"We're not attacking the smokers, we are attacking the concept of smoking. You don't have to quit, you just can't smoke inside the building," he said. "The reality is that there are no constitutional rights or protections for smokers including ADA. You don't have to make accommodations under ADA law for smokers."
The cities and towns are paying thousands of dollars in repairs — such as carpeting and wallpaper — when a smoker leaves the unit. Further, secondhand smoke pours through the building. Cities and towns have every right to ban that use, he said.
The organization has been running tobacco control projects since 1993. Tri-town Health had been part of crafting smoke-free workplace laws and had towns like Stockbridge banning smoking in restaurants before even cities like Boston.
"I think it isn't recent. Things go in cycles. Ten years ago when we didn't have all of these crazy products, we were doing compliance checks and we were working on the smoke-free workplace law," Wilusz said. "We've always been doing work. We just get more media now."
And Wilusz doesn't plan for the work to end anytime soon. In 2005, the city of Needham raised the age to purchase tobacco to 21 and saw a massive decrease in smoking prevalence. Wilusz says he isn't quite sure about that regulation yet, but he will certainly be looking into it.
"I do have my concerns with it but I'm looking at it close," he said. "I would be more supportive if I had the major municipalities and some of the smaller ones do this all together to take a stand."