Westminster, Mass., and the well-tended grass roots of tobacco bans

Townspeople came out loudly and in force to oppose the proposed Westminster, Mass. ban on all tobacco sales, and that has thrown advocates back a bit [New York Times, MassLive, earlier]:

“They’re just taking away everyday freedoms, little by little,” said Nate Johnson, 32, an egg farmer who also works in an auto body shop, as he stood outside the store last week. “This isn’t about tobacco, it’s about control,” he said.

Right he is. And despite the Times reporter’s lifted eyebrow at the notion that “outside groups” are encouraging town officials to go forward with the ban, it’s worth asking how Westminster, Mass., population 7,400, came to have its very own “tobacco control officer.” Do you imagine the townspeople decided to create such a position with local tax funds? If so, read on.

WestminsterSealFor well over a decade the Massachusetts Municipal Association has run something called the Tobacco Control Technical Assistance Program, assisted by grant money from the state Department of Public Health. It does things like campaign for town-by-town hikes in the tobacco purchase age to 21, and town-by-town bans on tobacco sales in drug stores. It will surprise few that it has been in the thick of the Westminster situation.

This article, written for a friendly audience of public health advocates, frankly describes how the MMA project, with assistance from nonprofit and university groups as well as the state of Massachusetts, worked to break down the reluctance of town health boards to venture into restrictions on tobacco sales (scroll to “Roles of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program, Local Boards of Health, and Tobacco Control Advocates”);

Local boards were enticed into hiring tobacco control staff by the DPH’s tobacco control grants. As a participant in the process explained, “[L]ocal boards of health looked at it as ‘oh, it’s a grant. Let’s apply for this grant. So now, what do we have to do, now that we’ve got it?’” … The grants dictated that local boards use those community members they had hired as their staff to assist them in enacting and enforcing tobacco control regulations…

The staff paid for with money from outside the town seem to have seen their job as, in part, lobbying the local officials: “We’ve had to work on each individual board [of health] member to get them to come around,” said one.

The account continues with many revealing details of how the outside advisers managed to orchestrate public hearings to minimize critics’ voice, deflect challenges with “we’ll take that under advisement” rather than actual answers, and in the case of particularly intense opposition, “back off for a couple of months” before returning. “Grant-funded regulatory advocates were able to counter all of [opponents’] arguments and tactics.”

In other words, an extra reason for the townspeople of Westminster to be angry is that they have been paying to lobby themselves. And it’s worth knowing exactly how the game plan works, because similar ones have been rolled out to localities in various states not only on “tobacco control” but on “food policy,” environmental bans and other topics. Grass roots? If so, most carefully cultivated in high places.

Update Nov. 21: board drops plan in face of overwhelming public opposition.


  • And it’s worth knowing exactly how the game plan works, because similar ones have been rolled out to localities in various states not only on “tobacco control” but on “food policy,” environmental bans and other topics.

    About 20 years ago a blitz of astroturf campaigns for “traffic calming” swept municipalities my area. Many were very successful, although a few of the most egregious results have been undone since.

    The funding and organizing was from leftist groups intent upon outlawing private cars. The secret goal that they didn’t reveal is that they were led by people who wanted sinecure jobs as municipal employees. Their tactic was simple: induce neighborhood tribal warfare. The street where you lived constituted your tribe.

    If you thought you had so much traffic on your street at certain times of day that your children couldn’t safely play in the street, you were encouraged to campaign for traffic diverters to move traffic to some other street. Naturally the tribe on the other street wouldn’t welcome the extra traffic, so the wars escalated.

    In my municipality the warfare went so far that nutcases were beseiging the city council with demands for “traffic diversion for pedestrians” because they didn’t like the fact that some people from “other neighborhoods” were walking on “their” sidewalks.

    In order to assuage as many of the tribes as possible, municipalities hired new staff to handle “neighborhood traffic issues”. The winners, of course, were the staff newly hired to sinecure positions.

    A certain city sometimes referred to as “Berserkely” stands as a prime example of the victory. You can’t drive a car from one place to another directly there. You are endlessly diverted from one street to another, and all around town. Cross town travel that should have been a mile or two became several times that.

    Now, the left there has decided to tax soft drinks, to protect the poor hapless children who otherwise would become unhealthy and obese from drinking too much soda pop.

    These local “tobacco control” campaigns are cut from the same cloth. The winners will be the newly hired “tobacco control officers”, and the smug fools who think they have “made a difference” in the left’s perpetual war against anybody anywhere (except themselves) enjoying anything.

  • Well, if this is not a conspiracy to try to control a society, I don’t know what would qualify.

    Full disclosure: I do not smoke, have never smoked, and I think it is a smelly and dangerous habit. My father died with his last cigarette in his hand, but he knew all the risks involved in smoking.

  • “This article, written for a friendly audience of public health advocates…”

    Link broken (or the article was taken down) – do you have another copy you can post?

  • Link still seems to be working for me:


  • Ohio bans smoking in bars and clubs. I can easily find a half dozen places where I can smoke in the open. The local police don’t bother them. Only the snitches seem to care. These anti-smoking laws just turn average citizens into law breakers. Can’t we just call a truce?

  • […] “Bowing to a forceful majority of opinion, the [Westminster, Mass.] Board of Health has killed its proposed ban on tobacco sales.” [Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise, AP ("This is a free country?" sign), Chris Snowdon ("The anti-smokers of Westminster… had to demand prohibition before the townspeople finally realized that they were dealing with prohibitionists"), earlier] […]

  • I was going to comment on the patronage aspect of this situation, but En Passant (may I call you En?) absolutely has it nailed.
    I suspect we have both seen some government service.