Scores of convenience store owners rallied outside City Hall on Wednesday morning protesting a citywide ban on selling flavored tobacco products.
The protest comes after the Boston Public Health Commission voted unanimously in December to raise the minimum age for buying tobacco to 21 and restrict sales of sweet nicotine products to retailers only accessible to adults — an effort to fight back against the allure of candy- or fruit-flavored products and keep kids from picking up smoking habits.
The demonstration was being led by the Boston Convenience Store Owners Association (BCSOA), whose leaders said they support other tobacco reforms like the 21-plus law, but not this one.
“You can go into a liquor store and buy a flavored nip — candy, gummy bear-flavored nip — if you’re 21. But if you’re 21 and you’re an adult and you want to smoke a vanilla-flavored cigar, you can’t do that,” said Luis Blanco, the group’s spokesman and owner of the Don Quijote Market in the South End. “That’s what we’re fighting for, to be on an even playing field.”
Tobacco is not a small slice of local stores’ profits.
Owners said 30 percent or more of their business comes from selling cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and other wares. And many of their customers who buy tobacco also pick up grocery items while they’re there.
“We do serve our community — bread, cheese, milk, sugar, coffee — we have the right to serve them tobacco, too,” said BCSOA President Francisco Marte. “We’re fighting for our rights, for our business, for our stores.”
They argued that customers frustrated by fewer choices at the corner store might go to neighboring communities, and that banning flavored tobacco would stoke a black market for the goods.
Nabi Ahamad, who owns East Boston Variety near the Revere border, said of his $5,000 in sales per day, about $2,000 of that is in tobacco.
“What if people come in to complain? Then my business goes to Revere. I lose my business,” Ahamad said.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” said Mohammed Alazad, who owns Mama Supermarket in Mattapan.
But city leadership appears lined up in favor of the ban.
“Increasing the restrictions on the sale of flavored tobacco products are the right next step for us to be taking to protect the health of Boston’s young people,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said in a written statement Wednesday. “We know the consequences of tobacco use are real and can be devastating, especially among youth, and these policy changes will protect Boston’s young people from dangerous health concerns. I appreciate the concerns of the retailers and we have valued the perspective of these business owners at all stages of adopting and implementing these rules. "
Board of Health Chair Paula Johnson and Huy Nguyen, who at the time was the Public Health Commission’s interim executive director, argued the same point in December when the ban was approved.
Nearly 50 municipalities in Massachusetts have adopted similar bans.