Senate votes to bar tobacco to under-21 buyers in Mass.

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BOSTON – The Massachusetts Senate voted 32 to 2 Thursday to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco in the state to 21 from 18 to 21, passing legislation that supporters said would cut down youth smoking and nicotine addiction.

The bill, compiled by the Joint Committee on Public Health based on several separate measures, also would ban pharmacies and health-care institutions from selling tobacco products and prohibit the use of electronic cigarettes in places where smoking is already banned.

“This bill is also very meaningful to me,” said Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat. “I started to smoke when I was under 21 and I was a teenager, and it was easy. It was the thing to do, and I did smoke…I wish that I was not able to smoke, and that I was older and understood the risks.”

Sen. Jason Lewis, who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, said the three-year increase will help keep tobacco out of middle and high school social networks, making it harder for younger teens to get cigarettes and other tobacco products from their older peers.

Lewis, a Winchester Democrat, said that about half of the state’s population lives in municipalities that have adopted local regulations setting 21 as the minimum age to purchase tobacco.

The bill (S 2234) would also need approval from the House before heading to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk. Baker,a Republican and former health care executive, has said he “conceptually” supports the smoking age increase but wants to see the specifics of what the Legislature proposes.

“I’m certainly very hopeful that the House will take up the bill soon and will pass it, because I think that there is such an overwhelming case to be made for this legislation,” Lewis told the News Service. “It’s very clear that if this legislation became law it would reduce the use of tobacco and nicotine addiction among young people. And if we do that, we know we are going to save lives and reduce health care costs.”

If Massachusetts does raise its smoking age to 21, it could become the second state to do so, following Hawaii. Legislation lifting the tobacco purchasing age to 21 in California is also awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. Individuals who turn 18 before Jan. 1, 2017 would be grandfathered in and still allowed to make tobacco purchases.

Republican Sens. Ryan Fattman of Webster and Donald Humason of Westfield voted against the bill, with Humason cautioning his colleagues it could “create a slippery slope” of regulating behavior.

Humason said he didn’t think young people should smoke, but that it is not the Legislature’s place to stop them.

“Tobacco is still legal in this state, as disgusting as some of us may think it is,” he said.

On a 14 to 19 vote, the Senate shot down a Sen. James Timilty amendment that would have kept the tobacco age at 18 for military members.

“I do not think that we should say to the 18, 19, 20-year-old who is serving on our behalf, wearing the uniform, picking up a gun, doing what they need to do and obeying orders to protect us that, you know what, you can’t smoke today,” Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry said during debate on the amendment.

Opponents of the measure countered that military officials are working to cut down on tobacco use in the armed forces.

Another Timilty amendment, also rejected, would have allowed an exemption from the higher purchase age for stores within three miles of the border of a state where the age is set at 18.

The Retailers Association of Massachusetts opposes the age increase, arguing that it is “anti-local business and anti-consumer as it seeks to ban licensed stores from selling a legal product to adult consumers.”

In a letter to lawmakers, RAM said that the legislation would shift “tobacco sales out-of-state and to the internet thus depriving the Commonwealth of tobacco excise tax revenue used to address problems associated with smoking which will endure.”

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network lauded the Senate’s move Thursday, saying it put Massachusetts “one step closer to reducing tobacco related disease and death.”

“Together with Massachusetts’ appropriately strong tobacco taxes and 100 percent smoke free workplace law, passage of this bill will once again make Massachusetts the leader in the fight against Big Tobacco and ensure that the Commonwealth has some of the strongest anti-tobacco policies in the nation,” Marc Hymovitz, the advocacy group’s director of government relations, said in a statement.

The Massachusetts Hospital Association also issued a statement thanking the Senate for passing the bill, saying tobacco and nicotine use costs the state more than $4 billion annually in healthcare costs.

Written by Katie Lannan