Whether the Town of Barrington, 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 November 6, 2017, the Town of Barrington, 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 prohibits the sales of tobacco products to persons under the age of 21 and limits the sale of flavored tobacco products to consumers. Several local businesses, including gas stations and e-cigarette and cigar vendors, legally challenged the ordinance alleging it violated the state constitution and was preempted by state law.
On June 1, 2018, a group of public health organizations, led by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and including the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium, filed an amicus brief at the Providence Superior Court in support of Barrington’s authority to enact the tobacco ordinance. Other amici included the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association, American Lung, City of Providence, Rhode Island Thoracic Society, and Truth Initiative. Our brief focused on the public health benefits of (1) prohibiting tobacco products sales to youth, who are especially vulnerable to nicotine addiction, and (2) limiting sales of flavored tobacco products, given the popularity of these products – including flavored e-cigarettes, small cigars, and smokeless tobacco – among youth and young adults.
On July 19, 2018, the court ruled that, despite the fact that tobacco control and efforts to protect youth are “an absolute necessity at this point in time,” the Town of Barrington lacked authority to pass its tobacco ordinance. The court’s reading of the statutes was that the town did not have express or implied authority to set the age for sales of tobacco or to restrict the sales of flavored tobacco products. The court finished by saying “I welcome a review up on the seventh floor [appeals court] . . . There’s some [times] that I wouldn’t mind being told I’m wrong; this would be one of them.”
Two other Rhode Island communities (Johnston and Middletown) are also involved in tobacco-related litigation in cases challenging local licensing authority. 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 January 31, 2020, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court, ruling that Barrington’s home rule charter did not give the Town authority over issues of statewide concern, and that regulating tobacco product sales is a matter of statewide concern. It also concluded that because the Town did not have regulatory authority in this area, a preemption analysis was unnecessary.