Tobacco buying age now set at 21

Arlington planning tofollowin3 years

Dover will become the fourth town in the state to raise the age to buy cigarettes to 21 and Arlington is moving to reach 21 over three years, after boards of health in both towns last week decided to hike the minimum purchasing age to keep tobacco products away from children.

Last week’s votes, on Monday in Dover and on Wednesday in Arlington, follow similar action in recent months in Sharon and Canton, as towns around the region move to curb smoking among youth and health advocates try to create a political domino effect that they hope will eventually result in a state-wide minimum age of 21.

The age to legally purchase cigarettes, long set at 18 in many communities, has been raised to 19 in Arlington, Belmont, Brookline, Watertown, and Walpole.


Public hearings on a possible increase to 21 are scheduled for next month in Medway and Foxborough, said pediatrician Lester Hartman, whose hometown of Needham was the first to hike the age to 21 in 2005.

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He and Massachusetts General Hospital physician Jonathan Winickoff have been traveling town to town for months to make the case that tobacco stunts brain development. Hartman took on his mission after a one-year sabbatical in 2011 to earn a master’s degree in public health.

Because such tobacco policies are made individually, on the local level, he said he had to take his pitches on the road to effect change.

After Monday’s vote in Dover, Hartman said he hopes the growing urgency in various towns will capture the attention of state health officials and spur more sweeping legislation.

While some communities he has visited have required multiple meetings and lengthy arguments, he said Dover officials took just 24 minutes to act.


“It was amazing,’’ he said.

Dover Board of Health chairwoman Barbara Roth-Schechter, however, said the vote was “a no-brainer” for her and fellow member Dr. Harvey George, who was active in early tobacco legislation.

A third member was absent from Monday’s meeting, she said.

Roth-Schechter is a neuroscientist with four decades of experience who said Hartman’s arguments and data are well known to her.

Dover health officials are in the process of tightening tobacco regulations after assessing other products that she said look like candy and are directly marketed to children. The age change and other bans should take effect in about five to six months, she said, after the town finishes its revamp of septic regulations.


“It blows your mind,’’ she said, of, for example, strawberry-flavored smoking products. “We were like, are you kidding me?”

‘What I sell ina week is what other townssell in a day.’

Dover, a town of 6,000, also has an advantage, she said, in the sense it only issues two tobacco licenses for retailers.

One of those licenses is held by Mike Sassine, the owner of Dover Mobil on Walpole Street.

He said he was unaware of the age change, but didn’t think it would have much effect on business.

“Most of the cigarettes we sell are to people who work in Dover,’’ Sassine said.

“But what I sell in a week is what other towns sell in a day. That is just the kind of town Dover is.”

But some communities might feel more of an effect.

The National Convenience Store Association in Virginia estimates that about two-thirds of the 3,077 convenience stores in Massachusetts are single-location operations already struggling in a lagging economy.

There isn’t much to stop a customer from driving over the border to another town to buy smoking products, a spokesman said, if the age to buy them is raised.

In Arlington, Christine Connally, the town’s director of Health and Human Services, said the Board of Health increased the age to 21 over three years, starting with a rise to 19 on July 4.

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, according to information provided by the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Officials in New York City, most notably, are considering a hike to 21 later this month. In Westwood health officials took even stronger action, adopting new rules that also regulate related products marketed specifically to children.

There, 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.

Brookline Health Director Alan Balsam said the move to raise the smoking age to 19 in that town was spearheaded by students in the high school’s Peer Leadership Program. After being overwhelming approved at a Town Meeting last year, the statute change was ok’d by the state Attorney General’s office and is being implemented this month as vender licenses are being renewed.

At the time, Westwood’s health director, Linda Shea, pointed out how teenagers and others are turning frequently to tobacco products that offer colorful, attractive packaging and sweet or fruity flavors.

“I mean, who else would want to smoke grape cigarettes?” Shea asked.

A partner in a pediatric practice based in Westwood and Mansfield, Hartman said the age hike is the only way to get tobacco out of high schools, where 90 percent of products are provided to underage smokers by 18- to 20-year-olds.

To further their mission, Hartman and Winickoff have co-written a “Tobacco 21” resolution endorsed by both the Massachusetts and national chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics, an effort that has won the backing of 55,000 pediatricians, he said.

Hartman has also reached out to health boards in Franklin, which will discuss the proposal in the fall, as well as Mansfield, which he said is considering a hike to 21.

He has also been in contact with other officials in Millis, Newton, Weston, Wellesley, Dedham, and Norwood, he said.

Leonard Izzo, the director of health in Wellesley, said his board is discussing Hartman’s proposal and should be setting a hearing date to discuss it publicly soon.

“We will certainly talk with him and take it into consideration,’’ Izzo said.

Dover’s Roth-Schechter said the town is glad to get behind Hartman’s efforts in what will be a benefit to children everywhere.

“I can’t say enough about him,’’ she said. “He is a driving force.”

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