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Our Opinion: Raise smoking age limit to 21 in Massachusetts

Reducing teenage smoking is difficult because of ready access. Making it illegal for teens to buy tobacco products would largely address that problem.

The Legislature’s Public Health Committee is considering recommending that the legal age for smoking be raised from 18 to 21 next year and we urge the committee to do so and the Legislature to approve the change. Supporters site a March study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies reporting that 90 percent of daily smokers first used tobacco products before the age of 19. Delaying that to whatever extent possible will reduce the number of smokers who contract cancer, emphysema, heart disease and other illnesses and lower the cost of treating them.

This is something that is coming anyway and a state-wide approach is preferable to a piecemeal one. In the Berkshires, Williamstown raised the age limit for the purchase of tobacco products to 21 in September and the Tri-Town Boards of Health, representing Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge, voted to do beginning January 2 of next year. Dr. Lester Hartman, a pediatrician from Needham, the first Massachusetts town to raise the limit to 21, told The Tri-Town Boards (Eagle, October 21) that tobacco use by high schoolers in Needham dropped three-fold after the age limit was raised.

The state’s convenience store and gas station operators are predictably opposed to this effort, but their concern is purely economic and lawmakers must look at the big picture, beginning with health issues. Given a choice, retailers would more than likely prefer a statewide age limit of 21 to a potpourri of age limits from town to town.

Whatever tax revenue is lost because of this change would be more than offset by reductions in the tens of millions of dollars now spent to confront tobacco-related illnesses, which raises health care costs for everyone, not just smokers. The change would also reduce the amount of suffering caused by those terrible illnesses. Raising the smoking limit to 21 should be a priority in 2016 for Beacon Hill.

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