Guest MINDSETTER™ Viral Patel: City Gets it Wrong on Tobacco Ordainance

Saturday, February 11, 2012


We place faith in our elected officials, expecting them to make decisions that best meet our needs, but sometimes they miss the mark. Such is the case with Providence City Council, which recently passed two tobacco ordinances that were made in haste and without input from the employers who they will hurt.

The first ordinance bans tobacco products with characterizing flavors from being sold by city retailers and the second one restricts retail pricing by forbidding retailers from accepting tobacco-related coupons or offering certain promotions.

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It’s clear that our officials have not fully considered the impact of these. Neither regulation will deter consumers from purchasing these products or from redeeming these coupons, but instead will prompt them to leave the city limits to make these purchases. And while they’re at it, those consumers will be making their other incidental purchases such as groceries at these other stores, too. This will put our businesses at stake and jobs at risk at a time when our struggling city can least afford it.

It is also disturbing how these ordinances were allowed to pass. The City Council agenda made no mention of banning of tobacco products or the new coupon regulations. In order to understand how these new ordinances would impact them, retailers would have needed expert legal guidance prior to the council’s decision.

Then, contrary to standard procedure, the ordinances were rushed through City Council. They were first read on a Tuesday, January 3rd, even though the city’s website says that all meetings take place of the first and third Thursday of each month. In addition, the second reading happened just two days, later even though the City Council’s meeting calendar is set up to have a minimum of two weeks between an ordinance’s first reading and a final vote.

Finally, in contrast to the openness with which most cities conduct public policy deliberations, the ordinance language under consideration was never posted to the city’s website for public review. Taken together, this was a failure of transparency and good government practices.

The backers of these initiatives, particularly the ban on flavored tobacco products, insist it was an effort to prevent these products from ending up in the hands of children. However, there are already tough and very successful youth tobacco access controls in place. Retailers follow ID check guidances and have a bevy of tools -- computer programs, calendars, and simple age calculators -- to help them be certain that the customer is of legal age to buy tobacco. Penalties for failure to follow these procedures are stiff, with fines and termination possible for violations.

Providence retailers are already fully committed to keeping tobacco out of the hands of minors and did not need new regulations to ensure this. But, thanks to the City Council, we now have a situation where we have made it more attractive for of-age consumers of legal tobacco products to take their business to neighboring cities and towns.

The council’s decision was a mistake in terms of both policy and good government.

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