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westwood

Health Board stiffens rules

The legal age to buy tobacco in Westwood is now 19, and items such as roll-your-own machines are banned.

Toby Talbot/AP

The legal age to buy tobacco in Westwood is now 19, and items such as roll-your-own machines are banned.

While dozens of communities have banned the sale of cigarettes in pharmacies in recent years, the town of Westwood has taken its anti-smoking campaign a step further, adopting new rules that raise the minimum age to buy tobacco to 19 and regulate related products marketed specifically to children.

To get tobacco out of the hands of young people, the Westwood Board of Health voted to not only raise the minimum age to buy it to 19, but also agreed to include e-cigarettes — commonly known as “nicotine delivery products” — in the stiffer regulations.

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Health officials also banned the sale of blunt wraps and commercial roll-your-own cigarette devices, raised the permit fee for vendors to $400, and the fine for any infractions to $300.

“Up until now, most communities only regulated tobacco products,’’ Linda Shea, Westwood’s health director, said after the Feb. 12 vote.  

But while cigarette use among Massachusetts youth is decreasing, teens and others are turning to other tobacco products at a higher rate, she said. After a presentation on how a variety of new tobacco products target children with their colorful, attractive packaging and sweet or fruity flavors, she said health board members were happy to take the extra initiative.

“It really opened their eyes,’’ Shea said. “I mean, who else would want to smoke grape cigarettes?”

Walpole and Sharon, meanwhile, are poised to vote on a doctor’s request to raise the smoking age in those towns to 21, and a number of other communities, including Canton, Norwood, and Dedham, have been approached and are considering the move being pushed by Lester Hartman, a pediatrician with a practice in Westwood and Mansfield who has taken on the town-by-town cause of asking communities to raise the smoking age to 21.

Hartman applauded Westwood’s action and also said other municipalities can make a mark by raising the smoking age even higher.

“Still, I see this as a victory,’’ he said of the Westwood health board’s vote. “It’s exciting.”

Hartman took on his mission after a one-year sabbatical in 2011 to earn a master’s degree in public health. Because such policies are made individually, on the local level, he took his pitches on the road.

Hartman’s hometown of Needham has restricted tobacco sales to people age 21 and older since 2005. Other towns, including Watertown, Arlington, and Belmont, have raised the age to buy tobacco to 19.

Working with fellow physician Jonathan Winickoff at Massachusetts General Hospital, Hartman has been able to persuade the state chapter of the American Association of Pediatricians to cosponsor a resolution to raise the tobacco purchase age statewide to 21. That legislation will be presented at an upcoming annual meeting, he said.

Some local discussions have revolved around the fairness of raising the tobacco age to 21 when 18-year-olds are serving in the military. But Hartman said communities can always include a military exemption. “I’m OK with that,” he said. “It just seems so obvious that the goal is to keep your kids well.”

Sharon’s Board of Health is scheduled to vote on the matter on Monday. Walpole’s health officials were to vote on Tuesday but have pushed the vote to March 12.  

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, said D.J. Wilson, the tobacco control director at the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Wilson uses a grant sponsored by the state Department of Public Health to help cities and towns that have tobacco control/smoking regulations, regulating youth access to tobacco products, locating smoking cessation programs for municipal employees, and providing public education about health risks and other issues.

Wilson commended Westwood for raising the smoking age, which, he said, “dramatically reduces the social source in high schools.”

As more communities make the change, Wilson said evaluations of the effects could lead to a statewide look at more sweeping legislation, as Hartman has hoped.

Westwood’s vote didn’t go over so well with Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Convenience Store Association in Virginia. He said about two-thirds of the 3,077 convenience stores in Massachusetts are single-location operations, many of which are already struggling.

And while store owners do their part to stay in compliance with new laws, “What’s to stop someone from going over the border to get cigarettes in another town?” Lenard asked.

“If you think you can outsmart an 18-year-old, you don’t have kids,’’ he said. “The law also has the ability to hurt retailers, and, ultimately, the tax base.”

Westwood’s ban could prompt some young entrepreneurs to buy cartons of cigarettes and other products out of town and then sell them out of a backpack to teens who want them, he said. “The black market doesn’t care how old you are,” he said.

Westwood’s new rules go into effect on April 1. Vendors have until June 1 to come into compliance when their licenses come up for annual renewal, officials said.

As part of the tighter regulation, town health officials also agreed that cigars – often sold singly for under a dollar, must be handled in at least packs of four. Board members also capped the number of town licenses at 10, including one that will be potentially available for the sprawling University Station mixed-use development project at Route 128 and Interstate 95 that is pending review.

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