Nearly a dozen communities across the state within the past year have raised the age for tobacco sales higher than 18 years old, evidence of a slow-spreading movement that activists say will reduce cigarette use among teens.
Most states, including Massachusetts, allow 18-year-olds to buy tobacco products. Alaska, Alabama, Utah and New Jersey are the exceptions, all of which have pushed the legal age to 19.
Until last year, Needham was the only community in the United States that prohibited sales to anyone under 21 years old – a change the town made in 2005, according to D.J. Wilson, the tobacco control director at the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Since then, a handful of other Bay State communities have followed behind. Brookline, Belmont, Sharon, Watertown, Westwood, Walpole and Sudbury have all outlawed the sale of tobacco to anyone under 21 within the past year, according to Wilson.
Canton, Ashland, Dedham and Arlington also changed their bylaws to prohibit sales of tobacco to anyone under 19, with Arlington planning to push its age restriction up to 21 years old over a three-year phase-in plan.
“In those towns we hope to see it is actually harder for kids to get their hands on tobacco products,” Wilson said, adding it is too soon to gather any data on smoking rates in those towns.
Other cities and towns across Massachusetts and the country are also looking to ban tobacco sales to young adults. This past spring, New York City became the first major U.S. city to ban the sale of tobacco to anyone under 21. In Massachusetts, the board of health in Newburyport is currently debating a measure that would outlaw sales to anyone under 21. The move faces resistance from the city mayor and some retailers.
“It is interesting in that it kind of cascaded pretty quickly,” Wilson said about the age restriction for tobacco sales.
Critics argue local officials are overstepping their authority, and anyone over 18 is an adult capable of making their own decisions about whether to smoke.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, called the moves “an overreach” by local governments. Anti-tobacco activists are attempting to take the path of least resistance by pushing age restrictions at the local level rather than face a more difficult battle to do it statewide, Hurst said.
“They try to pick off cities and towns here and there,” he said. “Local officials have to know that they are putting their own consumers and employers at a disadvantage.”
Activists credit Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Dr. Lester Hartman, a pediatrician in Westwood, with spearheading the change one community at a time.
Winickoff said a slow, steady approach will have a major public health impact statewide.
“I think community by community is what we are going to do for a while, and that’s the way to have this move forward,” Winickoff told the News Service.
Winickoff said he thinks part of the reason the change is spreading is because local town officials have seen the data from Needham. In the eight years since the age-restriction went into effect, the smoking rate for Needham high school students dropped precipitously, according to Winickoff.
The smoking rate for adults who live in Needham is 8 percent compared to 18.1 percent statewide, according to data collected by the Tobacco Control Program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Deaths from lung cancer among men from Needham is 24 percent lower than the state average, while women from Needham die from lung cancer at a rate 33 percent lower than the statewide average for women, according to DPH data.
Approximately 90 percent of all smokers begin the habit before they are 21, according to Winickoff and other anti-tobacco activists.
Tami Gouveia, executive director of Tobacco Free Massachusetts, said she is not sure if age-restrictions will continue to catch on in other cities and towns as a way of reducing young people’s access to tobacco. “It is really at the beginning stages of folks starting to take a hard look at this,” she said.
Gouveia compared it to when the legal drinking age was raised from 18 to 21.
Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday said she thinks increasing the legal age to buy tobacco is unnecessary and an inappropriate issue for the board of health to focus on.
“The legal age is 18. It is the age when you are an adult. You can fight in our wars. You have the right to vote. You can marry. And now we are going to tell you, ‘You can’t buy a pack of cigarettes if you want one,’” Holaday said.
Holaday said she will not dedicate any police resources to enforcing an age restriction on tobacco sales in Newburyport, leaving the question of how effective it might be in that city.
Increasing the legal age for cigarette sales will only hurt local retailers and send consumers to convenience stores in neighboring communities, Holaday said.
Hurst, from the Retailers Association, agreed. If cigarette sales are banned to anyone under 21 in one town, but legal in the next town, residents will buy them in the neighboring community, Hurst said. Secondly, he said, different rules on consumer products in the 351 cities and towns around the state will cause problems.
“I think our local officials have to be willing to stand up to these advocates who are pushing these agendas and tell them, ‘Go hop in your car and go to Boston to push a statewide agenda.’ It has no business being considered at the local level,” Hurst said.