Bill pending to raise age to buy tobacco products statewide in Massachusetts

Originally published for the Sun Chronicle on March 21, 2016. 

Anti-tobacco advocates and industry representatives might disagree on the age someone should be allowed to buy tobacco products, but they do agree on one thing: Tobacco laws are most effective and fair when they are consistent statewide.

State legislators are considering a bill that would increase the tobacco age in Massachusetts from 18 to 21 years old, a move that could make Massachusetts the second state nationwide with such legislation.

A number of Massachusetts cities and towns have already taken the step. At least 85 of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts, including Boston and the majority of Attleboro-area communities, have already raised the minimum tobacco age to 19 or 21, or are in the process of considering similar ordinances.

But, policy advocates and industry representatives said creating a uniform age statewide would close a loophole some municipalities and retailers with over-18 laws currently face, where underage residents are able to buy tobacco products from nearby towns who don’t operate under the same regulations.

“Right now we have a patchwork of laws across the state,” said Sen. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Health, which sponsored the bill earlier this month. “In some towns and cities you can sell tobacco to somebody who is 18 or over, some communities 19, and others you have to be 21. It’s confusing for retailers. It’s confusing for consumers, as well as public health officials.”

Ryan Kearney of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts said that while his organization thinks the legislation is premature and would cause financial strain on retailers, they are also concerned with the effects of the current patchwork of municipal regulations across the state.

“Having 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, and to have 351 different tobacco regulations to have to comply with makes it very hard for businesses that operate across the state,” he said. “For those individuals that are stuck in one of these jurisdictions that have acted, they’re put at a competitive disadvantage.”

Kearney said his organization is also concerned that lifting the tobacco age would reduce the number of consumers for smaller stores and gas stations that rely on tobacco sales. He said the association urges the Legislature to hold off on a final decision until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concludes its nationwide investigation on the impact of increasing the tobacco age to 21.

But, proponents of the legislation say that the public health benefits outweigh any financial cost to retailers.

The bill is designed to curb tobacco use and nicotine addiction for young people, who advocates say are often the target of tobacco companies and advertising.

Tobacco Free Mass, a coalition of health care advocates who support stronger regulations on tobacco, said that 95 percent of adult smokers start smoking before they turn 21. That, the coalition says, results in roughly $4 billion spent on tobacco-related illness each year.

“If you want to talk financial costs, the cost we should be concerned with is the health care cost,” said Mark Hymovitz, interim director of Tobacco Free Mass. “If you want to talk the true cost, a lifetime of illness, addiction and death by tobacco – that’s the real cost.”

“We know that most smokers start by the time they’re out of their teens, so if you can get to them at that point, chances are if they haven’t started smoking, there’s a good chance you’re going to stop them from starting,” he said.

In addition to increasing the tobacco age, the proposed legislation would expand restrictions on electronic cigarettes and prohibit pharmacies from selling cigarettes or other tobacco products.

Under the new law, e-cigarettes would be treated like other tobacco products, banning them from public places and prohibiting the sale to minors.

The legislation also includes a grandfather clause, allowing the continued sale of tobacco products to anyone who is 18 years old by the time the bill is signed into law.

In 2014, Foxboro was the first area municipality to enact an over-21 tobacco ordinance. Since then, Attleboro and Mansfield have followed suit. North Attleboro, Norfolk, Plainville and Norton are considering similar regulations.

Earlier this year, Hawaii became the first state to raise the smoking age to 21. The California Legislature recently passed similar legislation, but the bill awaits the governor’s signature.

State Rep. Paul Heroux, D-Attleboro, said that while it is unlikely for the bill to come up for a vote in the House due to the number of bills filed each year, he supports the legislation and hopes to see a tobacco law that would be consistent with the drinking age.

The legislation was reported out favorably to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, who will review the financial impact of the bill before it comes to a full vote before the Senate.

Hymovitz said Massachusetts has been one of the original leaders in tobacco control progress, implementing several increased taxes and policies over the past few years, but the bill takes a more comprehensive approach and would enact one of the strongest tobacco control laws in the country.

“While it’s been great that cities and towns across the commonwealth have been doing this, every kid in every city and town in Massachusetts deserves to be protected from Big Tobacco,” he said. “That’s why at this point we want to see consistency across the state.”

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