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Town wants to ban sale of tobacco

From this well-worn seaside town beneath the planes roaring into the nearby Boston airport, 74-year-old Ralph Sirianni watched the unveiling of the tobacco-industry settlement this summer with mounting discontent.

He also watched teenagers continue to light up their illicit afternoon smokes not 20 feet from school.The proposed $368 billion settlement did not go far enough to stop Americans from smoking, he said, because the deal-makers seemed to care more about money than saving the lives of millions of children.

So Sirianni, a retired state lawmaker, decided to do something about it. In the past two weeks, he has turned this town of 18,000 people into a new front in the tobacco wars with a proposal that both the American Cancer Society and Tobacco Institute officials said they believed had never been made before.

Just as many American towns and counties have voted to become "dry," banning the sale of all alcohol within their borders, Sirianni argued, Winthrop should become tobacco-free, forbidding the sale of all tobacco products.

As one of the three members of the Winthrop Town Board of Health (a post he took five years ago to keep busy in his retirement, he said), Sirianni put forth the proposal last month and received hearty initial approval from his colleagues - and a response of pure joy from some anti-smoking groups.

"Everybody was pretty excited and surprised," said Lori Fresina, the coordinator of grass-roots advocacy for the state office of the American Cancer Society. "It's a social experiment the whole country will be watching. More power to them."

Many townspeople, however, are less than thrilled. "I think this is one of the craziest things they've ever wanted to do in this town," said Patsy Cimino, owner of the Meat Market near Town Hall. "All small businesses survive on selling cigarettes," though Cimino said he does not sell them himself.

"Some people don't like to smoke and drink, but you have to respect other people's rights," he added.

One local merchant, the owner of the White Hen Pantry convenience store, got so upset that in an interview with the local paper, The Sun Transcript, he called the move unconstitutional and asked whether the Board of Health was taking up where Hitler left off.

Convenience stores get about 27 percent of their sales from cigarettes, said Walker Merryman, vice president of the Tobacco Institute, an industry-financed group.

"I don't know what this is going to do aside from putting some businessmen out of business," he said.

Some anti-smoking advocates have also remained cautious about the Winthrop initiative, saying they believe more in the gradual route of education and dissuasion than in outright bans.

With so many people addicted to them, "I don't think we have enough science in our hands right now to support prohibition of cigarettes," said Gregory Connolly, director of the State Tobacco Control Program. "We need a lot more scientific investigation on developing less harmful sources of nicotine."