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Teens ask town to hike tobacco age

Brookline students say 19 should be minimum to buy

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2012
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An effort led by high school students in Brookline could soon raise the legal age to buy tobacco products in the town from 18 to 19.

The effort is being spearheaded by Eric Dumas, a senior at Brookline High School, and fellow members of the school’s peer leadership program.

The group plans to ask Town Meeting in May to increase the minimum age to buy tobacco products, including cigarettes, to 19 years old within town lines.

“Since very few students turn 19 while still in high school, raising this age would greatly reduce the number of students who can get their hands on tobacco products,’’ Dumas told the town’s Board of Selectmen last week.

In 2003, Needham became the first community in Massachusetts to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 19 years old, and the town has since raised the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21 years old.

Needham’s Board of Health led the effort for the local law, but Needham health director Janice Berns said she is not aware of any other community in the state that has raised the minimum age to buy tobacco products.

Berns said the new law seems to have decreased the number of high school students using tobacco. She said surveys at Needham High School have shown that the percentage of students using tobacco every day has dropped from 13 percent in 2006 to 6 percent in 2010.

The number of stores selling cigarettes in the town has dropped from 20 to 11 since the minimum purchasing age increased, she said.

“We’re very pleased with the results, because our goal is to decrease access and availability’’ of tobacco products, Bern said.

Brookline’s Town Meeting will not vote on the warrant article proposed by students until late May, but the idea is garnering support.

The town’s Advisory Council on Public Health has issued a statement unanimously endorsing the change, saying that tobacco is the “leading cause of death and disability’’ in the United States, and that delaying or preventing young people from smoking may help reduce the risk of addiction and the onset of tobacco-related diseases.

The council said increasing the minimum age to buy tobacco would also bring Brookline in line with a growing number of other states, including Alaska, Alabama, Utah, and New Jersey, and Nassau and Suffolk counties in New York, all with similar minimum age requirements.

Alan Balsam, Brookline’s public health director, said the town would need the state attorney general’s office to sign off on the local law if it is approved by Town Meeting. But he said he does not expect any problems because Needham has already passed a similar measure.

Tharindu Weeresinghe, a 19-year-old senior at Brookline High School who is also part of the peer leadership program, said he wants to prevent younger students from making the same mistakes some of his peers have made by smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products.

Every day, Weeresinghe said, students can be seen smoking in an area in front of the high school, and he is hoping that raising the minimum age to buy cigarettes will help stop the practice.

“It looks bad on our town and on the high school itself,’’ said Weeresinghe.

Selectmen have not voted to endorse the minimum age increase, but Tuesday all five board members voiced support for the proposal.

Selectman Ken Goldstein said he sees students smoking in front of Brookline High School almost daily, and he is hoping that raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products will reduce the number using tobacco.

“I’m always shocked that that is the public face of Brookline High School,’’ Goldstein said.

If the proposal is approved in Brookline, Dumas said, students who are 18 could still travel outside Brookline to buy cigarettes. But he said he hopes that the busy schedule of most high school students would make that difficult.

Betsy DeWitt, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said the board is grateful for the work the peer group has done to bring the proposal before the town. She said selectmen will probably give their endorsement to the proposal within the next two weeks.

“This is a good move, and we much appreciate it,’’ DeWitt said.

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