Editorial: Raise the age for tobacco use

  • A woman has a cigarette while using a smart phone, Thursday, March 10, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. State lawmakers approved a package of laws to restrict the use of tobacco, including one that expands smoke-free areas to include bars, workplace break rooms, small businesses, warehouses, hotel lobbers and meeting rooms. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) Rich Pedroncelli

Thursday, March 10, 2016

There’s no doubt that people who begin smoking before they turn 21 are more likely to carry their addiction with them through life and perhaps to an early grave. State Rep. Kate Hogan, chair of the Public Health Committee, says nine out of every 10 smokers begin using tobacco products before age 19.

Legislation endorsed last week by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health would improve that grim statistic by banning the sale of cigarettes and other nicotine delivery vehicles — including the increasingly popular electronic cigarettes and other “vaping” products — to people under 21. It would also forbid tobacco product sales in Massachusetts pharmacies, which should be the last place anyone can find cancer-causing products.

“With this legislation, the Commonwealth has a real opportunity to intervene during the early formative years to prevent young people from using tobacco products and becoming addicted to nicotine, a habit that can last through their entire lives,” said Hogan.

If approved by the Legislature and signed into law, the bill would make Massachusetts the only state beside Hawaii to pass a statewide ban on under-21 tobacco product sales. Other states are considering a similar ban, however, and four (Alaska, Alabama, Utah and New Jersey) have raised the legal age from 18 to 19.

Massachusetts communities have led the way on making it harder for young adults to poison themselves. Needham became the first town in the nation to ban under-21 sales in 2005 and 85 other Massachusetts communities have followed suit — including Amherst, Southampton and South Hadley in Hampshire County and Charlemont, Greenfield, Gill, Leverett, Montague, Shelburne and Whately in Franklin County.

The need for a ban has grown more urgent in recent years with the rising popularity of vaping devices and the dubious claim that they are healthier than regular cigarettes. With sweet flavors and slick marketing, the devices have won particular favor among young people looking for the latest hip thing.

No ban will keep tobacco products completely out of the hands of young people, as decades of experience with underage drinking and smoking have shown. But making it harder for them to buy the products legally would undoubtedly keep many of them from experimenting or developing a habit.

And the Legislature would do well to follow the lead of 128 Massachusetts communities — along with the CVS pharmacy chain, which in 2014 stopped selling tobacco and lined the walls behind cash registers with anti-smoking messages rather than rows of butts. It’s beyond ironic that people of all ages can purchase cigarettes in the same stores where they go to pick up medications and other products designed to improve health.

The Legislature has over the years tried to create a deterrent in the form of higher costs, slapping an extra $1-per-pack cost on cigarettes in 2008 and again in 2013. Such measures are valuable. But the extra monetary costs pale in comparison to the disease and death that result when young people scrape together the cash to buy themselves a lifetime of addiction.