Should Massachusetts raise the statewide smoking age to 21?
Ruth B. Balser
State representative, Newton Democrat, House vice-chair, Joint Committee on Public Health
I am proud to be one of 56 cosponsors of House Bill 2021, "An Act further regulating the sale of tobacco products to teenagers." This important public health legislation, filed by my colleague, Representative Paul McMurtry of Dedham, would raise the tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21 across the state. I am also proud that Newton, the city in which I live and that I represent in the House, is among the approximately 80 Massachusetts communities that have adopted this policy at the municipal level.
The reasons for this bill are simple. Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among adults who become daily smokers, approximately 90 percent report first use of cigarettes before 19 years of age, according to a March 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. That same report concluded that "overall, increasing the [minimum age of legal access] for tobacco products will likely prevent or delay initiation of tobacco use by adolescents and young adults."
Just as raising the drinking age to 21 led to reduced alcohol consumption and a sharp drop in drunken driving fatalities among young people — along with a drop in their later dependency on alcohol — increasing the smoking age to 21 would have dramatic life-saving impacts.
The legislation is opposed by a coalition of retailers and the operators of convenience stores and gas stations who are fearful that raising the purchasing age will harm their bottom lines. However, even they acknowledge that a statewide policy would be easier to work with than what their spokesman referred to as a "hodgepodge" of different regulations in the 351 cities and towns of Massachusetts.
Research has shown raising the sales age to 21 poses a minimal impact to retailers. Further, it would be a mistake to put the bottom line for businesses above the health and safety of the people of the Commonwealth. There is probably no single piece of legislation that we might pass this session that would do more to save lives than this one.
Executive director, Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets; member, Massachusetts Coalition of Responsible Retailers
Some policy makers and health officials who seek to increase the legal age for tobacco purchase to 21 suggest that treating tobacco like alcohol — the other legal adult product that we all say we want to keep out of the hands of minors — will stop minors from using the product.
The inconvenient truth is that Massachusetts tobacco policies are full of loopholes that make it impossible to stop minors from obtaining and using tobacco.
Officials across the state say they want to protect minors from the harm of tobacco use. Yet they do nothing to address the fact that the state allows parents to give all the tobacco they want to their kids. And minors can possess and smoke tobacco without any legal consequences.
Antitobacco advocates often point to Needham — the first community to raise the legal age for the purchase of tobacco to 21 — as proof that this policy works. They selectively cite a study that shows a sharp decline in tobacco use by those age 18 to 21 in the first years after the policy was enacted. They fail to note that after the third year, that rate of decline in the town returned to about the national average.
Moreover, the study suggests that at least part of the short-term decline was due to the increased enforcement of existing tobacco regulations and heightened efforts to educate teens about the consequences of trying to purchase tobacco. There is scant evidence that raising the age for tobacco purchase to 21 results in a significant decline in tobacco use by minors.
The only group that legally keeps tobacco out of the hands of kids in Massachusetts is retailers. Yet health officials and politicians continue to blame retailers while failing to address the fact, reported by government studies, that more than 80 percent of minors get their cigarettes not by buying them for themselves at stores but by means such as "bumming" them from friends.
When you limit sale of a legal product to legal adults, you harm local convenience stores, reduce the number of jobs they have available for students, working moms, or others needing to supplement their incomes, and risk the ability of retailers to provide the food and other products often not available to our customers through any other practical means. That does more harm than good.
Last week's argument: Should the US ban assault weapons?
As told to Globe Correspondent John Laidler. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.