The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Massachusetts town’s hearing on proposed tobacco ban ends abruptly after crowd gets rowdy

The scene at Westminster Elementary School on Wednesday, moments before the Westminster Board of Health meeting on a proposed tobacco ban was shut down. (Steve Lanava/Worcester Telegram & Gazette via AP)

Westminster, Mass. — a town about 52 miles from Boston — might make history.

Or … it might not, if a public hearing was any indication.

The community of less than 8,000 residents is considering prohibiting the sale of tobacco products, which would apparently be the first such ban in the nation. Westminster residents gathered on Wednesday night to discuss the proposal, which would ban the sale of items such as cigarettes, chewing tobacco and electronic cigarettes.

The crowd grew so unruly that Andrea Crete, the town's Board of Health chairwoman, abruptly ended the event, according to the Boston Herald. Just four people spoke, and opponents of the measure sang as the hearing shut down. Crete left with a police escort, newspapers reported.

"Nobody's respecting the ground rules,” Crete said, according to the Herald. "We have to close it. The clapping. Everybody talking. Nobody is showing any respect to the board or to other people when they're talking. We cannot have that. It’s going to spin out of control."

The Herald reported that those who spoke all voiced opposition to the proposal. The speakers included one merchant, who said he was concerned about losing business, the Boston Globe reported.

"We need to keep Westminster dollars being spent in Westminster, not going to the next town over," said Brian Vincent, the owner of Vincent's Country Store.

Another local official, selectman Wayne Walker, told the board he couldn't "support such a unilateral and radical proposal," which he said he felt wasn't in the town's best interests, according to reports.

"This is about freedom; it’s my body and it's my choice to smoke," Nate Johnson, a Westminster farmer and auto body worker, told the Globe, which reported he was smoking a cigarette at a rally before the hearing.

According to the Globe:

When one resident loudly pronounced himself "disgusted" that the board would make a proposal that infringed on personal choice, the crowd roared with approval.
After several failed attempts to bring the hearing to order, chairwoman Andrea Crete gaveled the session to an end. As police shadowed Crete out of the building, many in the audience broke out in a verse of "God Bless America." Opponents also collected signatures on a petition to recall the three elected board members.

The American Lung Association has said that Westminster's ban would be the first in the nation, according to the Associated Press.

"They should be paying attention to salaries of others, overtime for police and other things, not worrying about this," ban supporter David Sepplin told the Herald.

"They're confused. They’re confused about civics. The Board of Health is voting to protect the safety of the clients, the people here. They’re protecting them and they’re upset about it."

A few more pictures from the hearing and its aftermath are below.