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    Brookline votes: Teens must be 19 to buy tobacco

    It’s getting much more difficult for high school students to legally buy tobacco in the suburbs west of Boston.

    By an overwhelming vote of 169-1, Brookline’s Town Meeting decided last week to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 19, joining Needham and Belmont as the first communities in the state to make the change.

    Now officials in Arlington and Watertown are also discussing raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products.

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    In Brookline, high school senior Eric Dumas led a group of students proposing the change to the local tobacco bylaw in an effort to make it more difficult for their peers to buy cigarettes.

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    Dumas told Town Meeting that one of the first things people see when they drive up to the high school is students standing out front smoking cigarettes. Since most students don’t turn 19 until after they’ve graduated, prohibiting 18-year-olds from buying tobacco products would help keep cigarettes out of the hands of Brookline High students, he said.

    “This may not seem like a big difference, but it is,” Dumas said.

    In 2003, Needham was the first community in the state to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 19, and in subsequent years it raised the minimum age to 21.

    Needham’s health director, Janice Berns, has said the change seems to have decreased the number of high school students using tobacco. She said surveys at Needham High found the percentage of students using tobacco every day dropped from 13 percent in 2006 to 6 percent in 2010.

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    In April, after hearing of the Brookline Town Meeting proposal, Belmont’s Board of Health voted unanimously in favor of increasing the minimum age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 19 as well. The change will take effect July 1, David Alper, the Board of Health’s chairman, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

    Alper said the board is constantly trying to find ways to stop teens from smoking, and raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco seemed easy and had no cost.

    In Watertown, public health director Steven Ward said increasing the minimum age to buy tobacco products is in discussion, though no proposal is formally on the table.

    In Arlington, Health and Human Services Department director Christine Connolly said the town’s Board of Health planned to discuss changes to the local tobacco regulations, including raising the minimum purchasing age, at its meeting this week.

    The movement among area communities is not the only one in the country. D.J. Ward, the tobacco control director for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said four states have raised the minimum age to buy tobacco products, but there is no similar proposal before the Massachusetts Legislature.

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    Dumas, who addressed Brookline’s Town Meeting last week along with fellow high school senior Tharindu Weeresinghe, said Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, and Utah have raised the minimum age to buy tobacco products. Nassau and Suffolk counties in New York have also passed similar measures.

    The students’ proposal garnered widespread support from health officials in Brookline, and Selectwoman Jesse Mermell said that while the change to the local bylaw wouldn’t eradicate smoking at Brookline High School, it is good public health policy.

    “Anything we can do to make it harder for a teen to light up is a win for our community,” Mermell said.

    With the approval by Town Meeting, the revised bylaw needs to be reviewed by the state attorney general’s office before it can take effect. Brookline’s public health director, Alan Balsam, has said he expects the state will sign off on the measure, since a similar law is already in effect in Needham.

    Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.