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Westwood doctor seeking to raise the smoking age

While marijuana has been stirring vigorous debate leading up to next week’s election in Massachusetts, a Westwood pediatrician has set his sights on more familiar types of smoking.

Lester Hartman is so concerned about the toxic effects of tobacco use on young people that he’s asking the health boards of up to 20 communities south and west of Boston to raise the smoking age to 21 from 18.

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“Ninety percent of lifetime smokers begin before the age of 18,” said Hartman. “Theoretically, because of the rapid brain wiring changes in adolescents, getting someone past 18 before starting may have an effect.”

Hartman’s hometown of Needham already restricts tobacco sales to people age 21 and older, and now he wants that practice to spread.

The 54-year-old Hartman took on his mission after a one-year sabbatical last year to earn a master’s degree in public health. In Massachusetts, such policies are made on the local level, so on his own time, Hartman has made pitches in such suburbs as Walpole, Medfield, Sharon, Norwood, Westwood, and Dedham.

Next up on the list are Mansfield, Foxborough, Easton, Canton, and Norfolk, he said, and future visits will take him to a number of area communities, including Brockton, Newton, Plain­ville and Taunton.

“The reception has been great in most towns,’’ Hartman said. “It’s not so controversial an issue, except possibly for the convenience stores that will lose money.”

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Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Convenience Store Association, said that about two-thirds of the 3,077 convenience stores in Massachusetts are single-location operations.

“They are true mom-and-pop businesses, and if they aren’t able to effectively compete they are the ones that might likely close up shop” if they lose sales, he said.

Lenard questioned what makes 21 the magic number, and whether Hartman or others would then ask to raise it to 25 or 30.

“We don’t feel there is any reason right now to increase the smoking age, but we would like the chance to be part of the discussion,” he said.

Around the country, the smoking age is 18 in 46 of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, and Utah have a smoking age of 19, as do Onondaga, Nassau, and Suffolk counties in New York.

Needham became the first community in Massachusetts to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 19 in 2003, and later raised it to age 21. Belmont and Brookline recently went to 19, and Watertown is considering it. Needham’s Public Health Department director, Janice Berns, said the higher limit seems to be working, citing surveys at the high school that show the percentage of students using tobacco every day dropped from almost 13 percent in 2006 to about 6 percent in 2010.  

The latest action in Hartman’s campaign occurred Tuesday, when Walpole’s Board of Health scheduled a public hearing on the subject for Jan. 8. 

Meanwhile, Sharon’s Board of Health vice chairman, Jay Schwab, said his board is receptive to the idea, and may consider placing an article on the Town Meeting warrant next spring. Hartman is “a lovely man and gave a most informative presentation,’’ said Schwab, who is a pediatric dentist. “I thought it would be a great idea to raise the age.”

“My board is considering it,’’ said Westwood’s health director, Linda R Shea, “but we are in the beginning of this and aren’t sure how far we want to go.”

Shea and other local health officials are also looking at ways to target what they call tobacco-delivery systems, which include inexpensive cigars manufactured in flavors such as strawberry and bubble gum, and chewing tobacco packaged in tins aimed at attracting young buyers.

Norwood’s Board of Health is reviewing Hartman’s information, but has not made a decision, said director Sigalle Reisse. If they do, public hearings will be scheduled to “take the pulse of the community.”

“He is such a highly respected pediatrician that I am sure people will listen to him,’’ Reisse said. “I’m sure he sees the effects every day in his practice.”

Dedham is intrigued and wants more information, said its health director, Cathy Cardinale. “It’s too bad the state doesn’t take hold on this, because it does make it difficult for each town,’’ Cardinale said. “You have to take into consideration peoples’ livelihoods and understand both sides, but this is a public health issue.”

Cheryl Sbarra, a senior staff attorney for the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, said she has been working on tobacco-related issues for 18 years, and is heartened to see a professional like Hartman seek change.

Without discounting his zeal, she said, her group is primarily focused on regulating products, such as getting rid of cheap cigars and other items that appeal to kids.

“Go into a convenience store and look around and you will be shocked,’’ she said.

In making his case, Hartman says that smoking and exposure to second- and even third-hand smoke so crucially affects brain development that denying access to tobacco for as long as possible may reduce the potential for addiction.

According to Hartman’s research, 1 billion people will have died from smoking-related illnesses by the end of the 21st century, up from 100 million at the end of the 20th century. He said he hopes his efforts have some effect on that figure, and he’ll continue his mission until the state takes notice and, hopefully, takes over.

“If we want to prevent addiction in children, this is what we need to do,” he said.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.

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