The state Senate is poised Thursday to pass a bill that would raise the minimum legal sales age for tobacco products from 18 to 21, potentially catapulting Massachusetts to the forefront of national efforts to crack down on underage smoking. Only one state, Hawaii, has passed such a law.
The Beacon Hill push has reignited a philosophical battle about how far the government should go in preventing young adults — who can serve in the military, get married, drive a car, and vote — from buying certain products, even ones harmful to their health.
Backers say the bill would reduce youth tobacco use by removing legal access to cigarettes and other tobacco products from high school social networks, subsequently lowering rates of addiction and saving lives.
“Ninety-five percent of adult smokers started before they were age 21, so if we can get you to 21 without being a smoker, you’re almost certainly not going to become one,” said John Schachter, a spokesman for the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “It’s just the right thing to do to help another generation from becoming addicted to tobacco.”
Governor Charlie Baker supports the concept of raising the legal age for tobacco sales to 21, but wants to see a final bill before taking a position on it, his spokeswoman said. An aide to Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said the House will review the bill when it arrives from the Senate.
A top Senate official said the legislation will almost certainly pass Thursday and is set to garner robust support.
Tobacco use at any age isn’t generally prohibited; rather state law limits sales of tobacco products to people 18 or older. But more than 100 Massachusetts towns and cities, including Boston, have raised the legal sales age, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The Senate measure would change the age statewide.
Hawaii is the only state in the country to have a minimum legal sales age of 21, although a bill doing so in California awaits Governor Jerry Brown’s signature.
The Massachusetts bill would also ban the use of electronic cigarettes where smoking is already prohibited, such as workplaces, bars, and restaurants. And it would prohibit the sale of tobacco products in health care facilities such as retail pharmacies. Some pharmacies have already phased out the sale of cigarettes.
The Retailers Association of Massachusetts, one of several local industry groups that opposes the bill, called the Beacon Hill push “anti-local business and anti-consumer” for banning licensed stores from selling a legal product to adult consumers.
In an interview, association president Jon B. Hurst looked pained contemplating the idea of it becoming law.
“We don’t believe government should be picking winners and losers on a legal product,” he said. “So you can sell it at one location, but not another one next door because that location happens to sell pharmaceuticals? We feel that is not fair.”
On a personal level, Hurst, who has a son in the Navy, said he struggles with the idea of military service members risking their lives overseas and not being able to buy a tobacco product — say, a cigar — when they return home to Massachusetts.
Altria Group Inc., the parent company of tobacco giants such as Philip Morris USA, supports a minimum age of 18 for the sale of tobacco products. The company believes states and localities should defer to a federal process examining the issue and give the US Food and Drug Administration and Congress “the opportunity to evaluate this issue before enacting different minimum age laws,” David Sutton with Altria Media Relations said in an e-mail to the Globe.
Harvey A. Silverglate, a civil rights lawyer in Cambridge and a noted civil libertarian, questioned the wisdom of the creating a law that would push 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds to procure tobacco under the table.
“Adults have a lot of illusions about how much authority and ability they have to deal with young people. I think this is one of them,” he said. “Smoking, just like drinking, that is done above the horizon, rather than below the horizon, is a better way to stop addictive behavior.”
But Senator Jason M. Lewis, a leader of the Legislature’s public health committee, said the data shows that raising the age works.
He pointed to a study of the Town of Needham, which raised the minimum legal sales age for tobacco to 21 a decade ago. The study, in the peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control, found survey data showed a decrease in youth smoking there. The authors said the results suggest that raising the age contributes to a greater decline in youth smoking compared to communities that leave it at 18.
Lewis said 21-year-olds don’t generally hang out with high-schoolers, which means it would be “much more difficult” for younger kids to get access to tobacco products should the bill become law.
Pressed on rights the Legislature would be abridging — say, the ability of an 18-year-old to purchase a celebratory smoke when graduating from high school — Lewis said he is cognizant that laws must strike a balance.
The Winchester Democrat noted that the bill grandfathers in legal users at the time of passage, so no one would have their right to buy tobacco taken away.
But he emphasized what he sees as the extremely high stakes.
“Tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable illness and premature death in Massachusetts,” he said. “It takes a very heavy toll — in terms of people’s health and lives and healthcare costs.”
Senators expect support for the bill to be bipartisan.
Senator Donald F. Humason Jr., Republican of Westfield, said he will probably vote in favor of the legislation, but is working to balance the arguments for and against.
“That is the trick,” he said, “the balance between nanny-statism and preventing people from getting hooked on cigarettes.”
State House insiders expect a passionate discussion about the bill Thursday, and it wouldn’t be without precedent.
In 1886, according to a Globe story at the time, a state representative from Shelburne opined on the dangers of the commonly used product as the House was debating forbidding the sale of it to kids under 16.
“We don’t need to go outside this State House,” he said, “to see what an abomination the use of tobacco is.”