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Teen pushed Brookline bylaw raising tobacco-buying age

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Eric Dumas learned the antismoking lesson at an early age.

BROOKLINE - When Eric Dumas was 4, he asked his father if a man standing nearby was going to die. Taken aback, his father, Rob, inquired why his son would ask such a question. His son’s response: “That person is smoking.’’

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, maybe I have gone too far,’ ’’ Rob said, referring to the “smoking-is-bad message’’ he engrained in his son as a toddler. “But I think I got the message through.’’

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The message stuck. Dumas, now 18 and a recent graduate of Brookline High School, persuaded Brookline’s Town Meeting to raise the legal age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 19. The town bylaw change, approved by a 169-1 vote May 25, now needs approval by the state attorney general before the 31 retailers that carry tobacco products in Brookline must stop selling them to 18-year-olds.

Dumas and Brookline High School administrators say they hope increasing the tobacco buyer age will cut down on the number of students who smoke outside while chatting on cement benches across from the school’s main doors.

Sitting in a school hallway after graduation rehearsal last week, Dumas said the outdoor smoking scene was the first thing he noticed when he arrived at Brookline High. Four years later, he says smoking isn’t actually a huge problem at the school - a 2011 survey found 11 percent of the school’s 2,000 students had smoked in the past 30 days. Yet Dumas believes he can help his peers kick the habit.

“It isn’t something that we should just let grow,’’ he said. “It is something you can put a lid on and stop.’’

Attempts to discourage teen smoking are not limited to Brookline.

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Needham was the first town in Massachusetts to raise the tobacco buyer age to 19 in 2001. The town then upped the age to 20 in 2002 and 21 in 2003. Dumas hopes Brookline High students will use that model next year as an example and campaign to raise Brookline’s tobacco buyer age to 20.

In early May, Belmont raised its tobacco buyer age to 19 after the Board of Health heard about Dumas’s efforts. Arlington and Watertown officials are also thinking about implementing a similar policy.

Dumas - who played on the football, basketball, and baseball teams - first got involved with antismoking efforts in his sophomore year, when he joined the school’s Peer Leadership program, a class in which 60 students discuss how to discourage smoking and drinking. The class met three times a week at 7:20 a.m. - 50 minutes before school starts.

“The fact that these kids are getting up at an ungodly hour shows their commitment,’’ says Hope Schroy, a Peer Leadership adviser.

With Schroy’s help, the students successfully lobbied school administrators to restrict student smokers to one corner of the public property across the street. They also proposed a town article that prohibits Brookline pharmacies from selling tobacco products. As a result, the CVS near the school now carries smoking cessation products instead of cigarettes.

Even town visitors have noticed the group’s efforts, Dumas said. “My friend was telling me the other day he went to CVS, and some guy from Virginia was in front of him and was outraged that he couldn’t buy cigarettes,’’ he said.

In March, the Peer Leaders tackled a new proposal to raise Brookline’s tobacco buyer age to 19, up from the age 18 requirement in state law.The Peer Leaders needed an 18-year-old registered voter to sponsor the petition, and Dumas volunteered.

Until then, smoking had not been a big issue in the Dumas family. No one in the house smokes, and no family members have died from smoking-related illnesses.

When Eric came downstairs one night with a tie on, it caught his father off guard.

“He’s saying, ‘I’ve got to go out tonight,’ and I ask, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going to Town Meeting.’ I’m like, ‘You go!’ ’’ About 10 Peer Leaders attended the meeting with Dumas.

Alan Balsam, director of Brookline’s Public Health and Human Services, who helped Dumas craft the bylaw, said Dumas’s role as a star player helped draw attention to the tobacco policy. “I think when Eric and his friends speak it resonates with his peers and the community at large,’’ Balsam said.

But not all Brookline students were pleased.

Gabriella Zutrau, 18, said the proposed change won’t stop teens from smoking because seniors will go to Allston to buy cigarettes and give them to underclassmen. “It will look good for the town,’’ she said. “But that’s all it will do.’’

Will Cooper, 16, said he smokes about six or seven cigarettes a week and wasn’t pleased with Dumas’s efforts. He said some of his friends under age 18 are upset about the age increase because they are “hooked on cigarettes and don’t want to wait that extra year.’’

Still, Dumas said there has been no large public outcry. After the article passed at the Town Meeting, he said, he saw only one Facebook post by a student against the proposal.

Tharindu Weeresinghe, a Peer Leader who has been friends with Dumas since fourth grade, worked closely with Dumas on the article. Weeresinghe praised Dumas, who is known among students for his athletic success, for taking on the smoking issue. “Even his success in sports hasn’t changed the person he is. He’s always willing to give a helping hand,’’ Weeresinghe said.

Next fall, Dumas will attend Wheaton College in Norton, where he plans to pitch for the baseball team and study international relations. He envisions a career in law enforcement; his dream job is to work for the FBI.

Joe Campagna, the Brookline High varsity baseball coach, who has coached Dumas since age 7, did not know about his pitcher’s tobacco policy work but said it was not a surprise.

“He’s got a very endearing personality,’’ he said. “Kids respect him on the team.’’

Campagna said he had to drop one of his players this year because the student was caught in violation of smoking.

“I see plenty of kids with cigarettes in their mouth,’’ he said. “It’s pretty disturbing.’’

Stephanie Steinberg can be reached at stephanie.steinberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @steph_steinberg.

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