PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It has been just short of 10 years since Pittsfield mandated a tobacco retailer training program. Immediately, the number of illegal sales dropped significantly and stayed down, according to health officials.
Recently, the Board of Health was asked to ease the compliance standards. Currently, every three years a store clerk has to become certified, at a cost of $25, through watching 45 minutes worth of videos and taking an exam.
David Bertolozzi manages a local store and has taken the exam three times. He says not much has changed in the process and he petitioned the Board of Health to change the regulations to decrease the frequency of certification for businesses whose clerks repeatedly pass the exam and comply with the laws.
"You say regulated, I say overregulated. You say educating, I saw overeducating," Bertolozzi said on Wednesday.
Bertolozzi says his store has five clerks who have worked there for years and at some point, he'd hope the company can get a reprieve from paying $25 per exam so often.
"I just don't agree with having to do this every three years," he said. "It would be nice to give the companies a break."
Tri-Town Health Director James Wilusz, who runs the program, argued against easing the certification program. He said the number of stores fined for selling to minors averaged 44 per year between 2003 and 2006 throughout all the towns involved with the Tri-Town Health Department. The following year it skyrocketed to 71.
Stores were getting fined $250 and having their licenses suspended, which cost an estimated $40,000 for the businesses. The retailers joined together with health officials to create the online training program. After it went live in 2008, there were 21 fines. In 2009, that dropped to just three.
Every year since then there had been fewer than 20 fines each year — with the lowest being seven in 2012 and 2013 — and the high being 13 in 2015.
"We reduced our illegal sales by almost 90 percent since we implemented it," Wilusz said.
From 2008 until 2016, there had been a total of 90 illegal sales and 72 of those were by clerks who were not certified.
"The likelihood of failing a compliance check is significantly higher by somebody who is not certified than someone who is," Wilusz said.
He argued that not only is the move good for health but it is good for retailers as well. The certification now links the violations to the salesclerk instead of the store. That places more responsibility on the clerks to do the right thing, he said.
"We put more responsibility of the clerks. At the same time we didn't want to dismiss the responsibility of the owner," Wilusz said.
But Bertolozzi said the test is almost identical every year and he hasn't been cited for selling to minors. He thinks if a clerk has a clean history and passes a certain number of times, they shouldn't have to do it again.
Wilusz responded that the program is revamped every three years to keep up with changes in the industry.
"Tobacco is a constant moving cycle. As soon as we pass regulations something new will come out next year," Wilusz said.
The Board of Health sided with Wilusz. Chairman Jay Green said the program is working and results show that, so he'd be hard pressed to advocate to loosen the restrictions.
"It is very hard to go against some of the data," Green said.
The retailer training is just one piece of what the Tri-Town Health Department does regarding tobacco control. It had been put in place in 1994 when the state started taxing cigarettes and allocated the money for prevention programs. That has since evolved.
Pittsfield particularly stands out in smoking prevalence.
According to the Department of Public Health, Pittsfield's rate of adult smokers is 48 percent higher than the state average — 22.9 percent of Pittsfield adults smoke compared to 15.5 percent statewide. There are an estimated 8,072 smokers living in Pittsfield. The rate of smoking during pregnancy in Pittsfield is 250 percent higher than the state average — with 23.8 percent in Pittsfield and 6.8 percent statewide.
"I think Berkshires and the Cape struggle the worse with health. The only thing we really rank well at is access to health care," Wilusz said.
Those numbers were staggering for Board of Health member Steve Smith.
"The smoking rates in Pittsfield just give you pause. It is alarming," Smith said, particularly pointing to the smoking while pregnant numbers.
In 2014, the city revamped its smoking regulations with changes of capping the number of retailers, banning retailers from being too close to schools, increased signage, and minimum pricing for items like cigars and, in 2016, increased the age to buy tobacco products to 21.
"We're in an uphill fight. We've been working on tobacco control for 24 years and we are still behind," Wilusz said.
Wilusz said there are a number of new products coming out, such as e-cigarettes that have packaging and marketing focused on young adults. The control program through the Tri-Town Health Department is trying to prevent the next generation from starting in the first place.
The program includes working with retailers to make sure they understand all of the regulations and they have proper signage. The department runs the compliance checks by hiring 16- and 17-year-olds to try to buy tobacco; stores that sell to them are reported to the local board of health.
The department will also check retail pricing to make sure each store is complying with the minimum standards set in Massachusetts. That has become more difficult, Wilusz said, because the Department of Revenue is required to fine the stores but a lack of staffing there has led it to lag behind. In 2016, throughout Tri-Town's reach only 42 percent of stores were fully compliant with minimum pricing.
"We price check every single tobacco product in every single store," Wilusz said. "Unfortunately, we have a high number of non-compliance for minimum pricing."
The organization works with the Board of Health to develop new regulations, such as increasing the age to purchase to 21.
In Pittsfield in 2016, a total of 103 compliance checks were done and there were eight failures, a passing rate of 92 percent. Meanwhile, of the 52 pricing surveys done, 36 stores failed, a passing rate of just 31 percent. And for stores with the proper signage, 98 percent of the 111 checked were up to par, with just two not compliant.
But while the program continues to combat youth smoking, more and more products are coming into the market and gaining popularity.
"The amount of vaping in our adult and young is absolutely out of control. And no matter what people say, it is not a cessation device," Wilusz said.
The Tri-Town Health Department hopes to continue its progress and is working to make smoke-free housing and looking to start up another 84 Chapter in the local high schools to help implement anti-smoking strategies.
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