To curb tobacco use, committee bill raises smoking age

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STATE HOUSE — The Massachusetts smoking age would rise to 21 and pharmacies would be banned from selling cigarettes and other tobacco products under a bill recommended Thursday by the Joint Committee on Public Health.

The bill, intended to curb youth tobacco use and nicotine addiction, also includes electronic cigarettes and “other similar products that rely on vaporization or aerosolization” in the definition of tobacco products that cannot be used in public places or sold to minors.

Rep. Kate Hogan of Stow, the House chair of the Public Health Committee, called the bill’s provisions “forward-thinking” and said that nine out of every 10 smokers begin using tobacco products before the age of 19.

“With this legislation, the commonwealth has a real opportunity to intervene during the early formative years to prevent young people from using tobacco products and becoming addicted to nicotine, a habit that can last through their entire lives,” Hogan said.

The bill (S 2152) was referred Thursday to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. From there, the bill’s backers hope to see it come before the full Senate “as soon as possible,” said Sen. Jason Lewis, who co-chairs the Public Health Committee.

The bill, which includes components of eight tobacco bills filed this session, builds on actions already taken at the local level across many Massachusetts communities.

In 2005, Needham became the first town in the country to ban the sale of tobacco products to people under 21. Since then, 85 other Massachusetts municipalities have followed suit, Hogan said. At least four have raised the age to 19. Elsewhere in the state, the smoking age is 18.

While there has not been vocal opposition to anti-tobacco legislative measures, the initiatives have also not figured prominently into the prominent priorities of legislative leaders and Gov. Charlie Baker.

The bill’s advancement from committee was touted at a press conference. Its margin of support within committee was not available; a committee aide declined to say how committee members voted on the bill or provide the total vote tally.

If Massachusetts were to raise its age for sale of tobacco products to 21, it would join Hawaii as the only other state to do so. Other states, including California, are weighing taking the step as well, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. In Alaska, Alabama, Utah and New Jersey, the age for tobacco sales is 19.

In 2014, the Rhode Island-based pharmacy chain CVS announced it would stop selling tobacco products across all of its locations. At least 128 Massachusetts communities have banned tobacco sales in their local pharmacies.

Dr. Lynda Young, a Worcester pediatrician who chairs the anti-smoking coalition Tobacco Free Mass, said the bill would provide uniformity and eliminate a confusing “patchwork” of different laws and regulations across the state.

“Enactment of the bill will be a giant step forward for public health, as it will have an immediate, positive impact on the well-being of our young people,” Young said in a statement. “We urge its quick passage by the legislature.”

The Legislature over the years has raised taxes on tobacco products – a $1 per pack increase was approved in 2008 and again in 2013, for instance – and state government receives regular, substantial revenues from a 1998 litigation settlement with tobacco companies, although anti-smoking advocates say too little of the settlement revenue has been dedicated to public health and anti-smoking efforts.

Under the committee’s bill, e-cigarette use would be banned anywhere that traditional smoking is and the liquid nicotine that such devices use would need to be sold in child-resistant packaging.

These provisions take aim at what Sen. Harriette Chandler described as a “rapid spread of e-cigarettes as the favorite smoking method of young people.”

The bill also expands an existing prohibition on smoking in schools. Current law prevents public school students from using tobacco products on school grounds during school hours. Language in the new bill bans the use of tobacco products by any person at schools, on buses and at school-sponsored events, whether the school is public, private, vocational, or an agricultural or technical institute.

If passed, the bill would take effect as soon as signed by the governor, though the higher smoking age would not apply to people who turn 18 by Sept. 1 of this year. The grandfathering would end on Sept. 1, 2019, when only 21-year-olds would be able to buy tobacco.

“We believe that this bill, as we’ve said, will save lives and will also reduce health care costs over time, so we think there’s a very compelling case to be made to our colleagues, to legislative leadership, and to Gov. Baker for passing the bill this session,” Lewis said.

According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network in Massachusetts, tobacco use accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths in the country.

“It’s not too often that we can make a major impact on our society, but this is one of those instances, because this bill will prevent tobacco use among our youth, which will result in countless lives saved,” Marc Hymovitz, the network’s director of government relations, said.

— Written by Katie Lannan

Copyright State House News Service