Mass. Senate approves 21 as new tobacco age

BOSTON — The state Senate voted Thursday to approve raising the minimum age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21.

In addition to joining Hawaii as the only other state with a 21-year-old minimum, the legislation would regulate the sale and use of electronic cigarettes and prohibit the sale of tobacco products at health care facilities, including pharmacies.

Smoking is “still the leading cause of preventable illness and premature death in the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” said Sen. Jason M. Lewis, D-Winchester, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Health.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 32-2, would apply to cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco. It now moves on to the House.

Donald F. Humason Jr., R-Westfield, was one of the two senators who voted against the bill. His Second Hampden and Hampshire district includes Easthampton and Southampton.

Before Thursday’s vote, Lewis said age is a crucial factor in tobacco consumption because “people who use tobacco almost always start young.”

According to the most recent data by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately nine out of 10 smokers begin using tobacco by age 18. More than 3,800 people who are 18 or younger try their first cigarette every day, according to the CDC.

The change in the age minimum is effective because “it gets tobacco products out of high school social networks,” Lewis said.

Lewis showed his fellow senators examples of tobacco products sold in convenience stores, such as vanilla- and grape-flavored cigarillos and chewing tobacco pouches, with colorful packaging that he said could be “appealing to teenagers.”

He recalled the events of April 12, when three 11-year-old girls were hospitalized after consuming liquid nicotine meant for vapor cigarettes, which they mistook for candy.

Surgeon General’s report

In 2000, the CDC’s Surgeon General’s report on reducing tobacco use concluded that limiting easy access to tobacco products and better explaining the risks of tobacco and nicotine use are priorities for public health action.

“Tobacco use and nicotine addiction is the leading cause of preventable illness and premature death in Massachusetts and the entire country,” Lewis said “It is clearly the No. 1 preventable health issue that we need to deal with.”

The bill would take effect January 1, 2017, and would exempt any person who is 18 on or before that date.

The bill would also make illegal the use of tobacco products by those under the age of 18, but would require that the punishment be only a notice of violation, rather than an offense noted on that person’s criminal record.

Senators debated an amendment that would exempt military personnel from the age minimum, but ultimately voted against it.

More than 130 cities in nine states, excluding Hawaii, have raised the age minimum to 21, according to Tobacco21.org, an advocacy website. In Massachusetts, over 100 communities have raised the age minimum above 18.

Needham, the first in the country to raise the age minimum to 21, saw a 48 percent reduction in the smoking rate, Lewis said.

Amherst, Southampton, South Hadley, Leverett and Greenfield are among the communities in western Massachusetts that already have raised the minimum age to 21.

Lewis said these communities have shown that changing the age minimum “does in fact reduce use consumption and smoking rates.” He said the bill would give communities throughout Massachusetts “a level playing field,” by creating uniform statewide regulations.

Retailers concerned

But others are concerned about the impact of this bill on state commerce. Jon B. Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said the group opposes the bill, which “requires you to stand up and draw a line in the sand.”

Raising the minimum age, Hurst said, would cause convenience stores in cities and towns close to the state border to lose business to neighboring states — something that was not of concern in the island state of Hawaii.

“It can hurt particularly small sellers, whether it be convenience stores or others that are going to have less traffic because a number of consumers are not going to come through their front door anymore,” Hurst said. “That certainly becomes a larger issue.”

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on April 29, 2016.

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