Whether the Town of Middletown, Rhode Island, has the authority to enact science-based public health laws to protect its residents – particularly its youth – from addiction to tobacco products and the toll of tobacco-related disease and death.
On December 4, 2017, the Town of Middletown, Rhode Island, enacted an ordinance to reduce access to tobacco products by young people and to reduce the appeal of tobacco products to young people. The ordinance establishes a licensing requirement for tobacco-selling businesses, limits the sales of flavored tobacco products to smoking bars and vape shops, and prohibits licensees from accepting or redeeming coupons or selling tobacco products in multi-package discounts. Several local businesses, including gas stations, challenged the ordinance in court, alleging that it violated the state constitution and that the Town lacked authority to require licensing.
On July 30, 2018, the Public Health Law Center filed an amicus brief at the Newport Superior Court in support of Middletown’s authority to enact the tobacco ordinance. Our brief focused on Rhode Island municipalities’ authority under state law to regulate the sale and purchase of commodities. We further argued that tobacco control is an essential local concern tied up in a government’s public health powers, necessitating the use of effective tools such as local licensure of sellers. The Plaintiffs have until late August to file a reply brief to our filing.
Two other Rhode Island communities (Barrington and Johnston) are also involved in tobacco-related litigation regarding local authority to regulate tobacco sales. Each of these cases is significant because many tobacco policies (including Tobacco 21, flavor restrictions, and coupon redemption restrictions) are components of licensing laws in Rhode Island, so a decision in favor of the plaintiffs in any case could have significant implications for local licensing authority throughout Rhode Island. On July 19, 2018, a court found against the Town of Barrington’s tobacco ordinance in a decision that is likely to be appealed.
On October 30, 2018, a court found that the Town of Middletown exceeded its authority under the Home Rule Amendment in enacting the tobacco ordinance and lacked the necessary delegation of authority by the General Assembly. As a result, it found the ordinance unconstitutional and therefore null and void.