Jason M. Lewis
State senator, Winchester Democrat
Increase the minimum sales age to 21 for all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, and you decrease the number of nicotine-addicted youth. That’s important because nine in 10 regular tobacco users start smoking by age 19. Fewer young smokers today equal fewer adult addicts tomorrow. That’s significant because we in Massachusetts collectively pay $4 billion in annual tobacco-generated health care costs.
Use of tobacco is the leading preventable cause of premature death in the United States, according to the surgeon general.
We know that increasing the legal age for tobacco purchases is effective in curtailing youth tobacco use. In 2005, the pioneering town of Needham became the first municipality in the country to increase the minimum tobacco sales age to 21. Within five years, the community’s smoking rate had been cut in half.
Nearby cities and towns paid attention: About 80 Massachusetts municipalities have followed Needham’s example. More, like the city of Boston, are about to implement this change; and, Hawaii recently became the first state to go to 21. We now have a patchwork of cities and towns in the Commonwealth with different legal sales ages for tobacco, which can confuse retailers and consumers alike.
We also have more than 800,000 tobacco users in the Commonwealth, including an increasing number of middle and high school youth using electronic cigarettes. By reducing access to tobacco products from high school social networks, the Institute of Medicine projects that an age 21 tobacco policy will over time reduce the smoking population by 12 percent. For Massachusetts, that means about 96,000 fewer tobacco users harming their lungs, their hearts, and all our wallets. It is time for a statewide approach.
This approach to protecting our youth and our long-term public health is affordable. A modest drop of 2 percent in lost tobacco sales and tobacco tax revenues will accompany this policy change, an investment taxpayers may be pleased to make since the expense is more than offset by projected reductions in health care costs for which we collectively pay. Reduce our costs and improve our health. That’s just smart policy.
Owner, Reading Quick Stop
Elected officials profess their dedication to local, small businesses, but they cannot seem to resist taking actions that make it harder for these businesses to operate, let alone make any profit. Talk of raising the age for legal tobacco sales to 21 is just the latest example of the disconnection between what these officials say and what they do.
Health officials don’t dispute the fact that the overwhelming majority of minors do not buy tobacco products directly from retailers.
Massachusetts has approximately 108,707 people ages 18 to 21, and roughly 4.7 million above the age of 21. If we apply the rate of cigarette use by minors 12 to 17 years old (9.5 percent) to the 18 to 20 population, raising the legal age to 21 may stop 10,237 out of 5.5 million adults from providing tobacco to minors. Given the harm that would be done to retailers, stopping .2 percent of five million adults from providing tobacco products to minors is statistically insignificant. Even if the age is increased to 21, 5.5 million adults would still have the ability to legally provide minors with access to tobacco.
Legislators and health officials are confusing the popularity of a potential policy with its effectiveness.
Nearly every hour of the day, retailers like me sit on the front lines of the effort to keep tobacco out of the hands of kids. Look at the numbers that state and federal officials find when they spot- check stores to see if we are complying with the regulations and verifying ages before we sell tobacco. These compliance checks regularly show that as many as 100 percent of local retailers do not sell tobacco to minors. Among those retailers who make mistakes, the compliance numbers still hover well above 90 percent, showing that these mistakes are not the norm.
It’s time for politicians and health officials to join with retailers to effectively stop minors from being able to access and use tobacco and to stop trying to scapegoat retailers for selling a heavily regulated, legal product to adults who chose to buy it.