Bay State could be third to raise tobacco age to 21

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BOSTON — Massachusetts may become the third state to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21 years old, as a bill proposing the new age requirement flew briskly through the Senate and could land on the floor of the House for a debate before the current session ends.

Earlier this month, the measure garnered an ought-to-pass recommendation from the House Committee on Rules, a crucial step in the lawmaking process, and saw the addition of an amendment that bans outright the use of tobacco products at schools and various public spaces, as well as sales at drugstores. The House Committee on Ways and Means received the amended version of the bill a week ago.

Included in the public spaces ban are electronic cigarettes, or electronic nicotine delivery systems, colloquially referred to as “vaping.”

Seth Gitell, communications director for House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop), said Wednesday his boss is awaiting a final review from the House Committee on Ways and Means and has not yet decided whether he’ll officially back the measure.

Reached Wednesday, state Sen. Jason M. Lewis (D-Winchester) said various amendments were borne out of separate proposals introduced by lawmakers that were similar to the legislation introduced by the Joint Committee on Public Health, which he leads.

“The goal of the legislation is very simple — to reduce the use of tobacco and nicotine by young people and fight addiction,” Lewis said. “We know it will save lives over time and we know it will help to reduce healthcare costs.”

Lewis and other lawmakers are relying on data generated by the smoking ordinance enacted a decade ago in Needham. The town’s 21-and-over regulation has resulted in a significant decline in youth smoking, according to data culled by the MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey. Today, more than 100 cities and towns in Massachusetts, including Boston, have followed Needham’s lead.

Lewis said Needham has seen a 48 percent reduction in tobacco use since the town’s ban went into effect. California, which became the second state in the nation after Hawaii to raise the tobacco age to 21, weighed Needham’s results heavily when it passed its version of the law this past spring.

According to a Los Angeles Times report, officials at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UC San Francisco were originally skeptical when Needham introduced its ordinance. The data, according to officials who spoke to the Times, changed their minds. As of June 9, it is illegal in California to sell or give tobacco to anyone under the age of 21, save for military personnel. Opponents have until August to collect at least 366,000 signatures to force a referendum.

Massachusetts senators rejected a similar military provision during their vote this past spring.

Lewis said he’s “certainly hopeful” the bill will land on the House floor for a debate. He pointed to Gov. Charlie Baker’s stated support of raising the minimum age for buying tobacco products and the fact that only two Republican lawmakers in the Senate voted against it.

State Sen. Donald Humason (R-Westfield) cast one of the two votes opposing the measure. Humason told that 18-year-olds, as adults, can “make their own decisions” and pointed that tobacco is still legal in Massachusetts “as disgusting as some of us think it is.”

Lewis is optimistic that Massachusetts will join California and Hawaii in raising the lawful tobacco purchasing age to 21.

“I envision strong support in the House,” Lewis said.