Editorial: State should raise tobacco sales age to 21

Published: 5/17/2018 4:51:55 PM

We hope this is the year that Massachusetts joins five other states in raising the legal age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The Legislature took the first step toward that goal May 9 when the House voted 146-4 to raise the minimum age for purchasing cigarettes and vaping products statewide. The bill also would bar pharmacies from selling tobacco and vaping products, and add e-cigarettes to the list of banned substances where state law prohibits smoking.

The Senate passed similar legislation 32-2 in 2016, but it died in the House that year. With approval again likely in the Senate — and Gov. Charlie Baker signaling his support — chances appear better than ever for this life-saving measure to be adopted before the formal legislative session ends July 31. The law bringing the age of legal tobacco sales in line with those for alcohol and marijuana would take effect Jan. 1. The tobacco law would not apply to anyone who already is 18 by that date.

“Smoking is simply killing our kids,” said Rep. Kate Hogan, D-Stow, House chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health. “If young people start smoking before 21, they often become smokers for life.”

Raising the age to 21 for tobacco sales would put Massachusetts in the forefront of that effort nationwide. That age already is the law in California, Hawaii, New Jersey and Oregon, and it will take effect July 1 in Maine.

Needham was the first community in the country to ban under-21 sales in 2005, and a total of 172 cities and towns in Massachusetts have followed suit, including over the past couple of years, Greenfield, Sunderland, Whately, Montague and Deerfield.

When Deerfield adopted the change, Board of Health Chairwoman Carolyn Shores Ness asserted, “We’re protecting our town and our own children, as well as our neighbors’ children.”

We agree. A study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, a private, nonprofit organization, concluded in 2015 that “increasing the minimum age of legal access to tobacco products will prevent or delay initiation of tobacco use by adolescents and young adults, particularly those ages 15 to 17, and improve the health of Americans across the life span.”

The report forecast then that if the minimum age was raised to 21 nationwide, there would be about 249,000 fewer premature deaths, 45,000 fewer deaths from lung cancer and 4.2 million fewer years of life lost for those people born between 2000 and 2019.

It also makes sense to bar anyone under age 21 from buying electronic cigarettes and other vaping products, which are becoming increasingly popular with young people. Those devices, which turn liquid usually containing nicotine and flavorants into an inhalable vapor, have become a $4 billion industry in the United States, despite little research about their long-term health risks.

Another report by the Institute of Medicine, released in January, suggests that “while e-cigarettes are not without health risks, they are likely to be far less harmful than conventional cigarettes … However, their long-term health effects are not yet clear.”

Disturbingly, the report concludes that “among youth — who use e-cigarettes at a higher rate than adults do — there is substantial evidence that e-cigarette use increases the risk of transitioning to smoking conventional cigarettes.”

That’s why vaping, though seemingly more benign than traditional cigarettes, should also be illegal for anyone under 21.

We also like the provision in the legislation that would prohibit the sale of tobacco products by pharmacies or stores within health care facilities. That’s a measure that should have been adopted years ago, following the lead of the CVS pharmacy chain, which in 2014 stopped selling tobacco in its stores. We can’t imagine a more incongruous site for selling tobacco than the same place where medications and other health-care products are dispensed.

We know that no ban will ever completely keep addictive tobacco products from being used by young people. However, raising the legal age to 21 will surely discourage many youths from starting the health-threatening habit of smoking, and we urge the Legislature to take that important step in the coming weeks.


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