A growing trend to raise the age of tobacco purchasing has made its way to western Massachusetts.
The Tobacco Control Program of the Tri-Town Health Department covers 12 communities in the Berkshires. Department Director of Public Health Jim Wilusz says there is a growing commitment in the area to look at raising the age a person can buy tobacco products above the current standard of 18.
“Raising the minimum age to 21, it can only help,” Wilusz said. “If we can at least deter it three more years I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
Tami Gouveia, executive director of Tobacco Free Mass, says 50 communities in the commonwealth have increased the purchasing age while other states are looking at the issue as well. She cites recent findings from the Institute of Medicine predicting the health impacts of raising the age of tobacco sales to 21.
“We will see a reduction in the smoking rate by about 12 percent and we’ll see smoking-related deaths decrease by 10 percent over time,” Gouveia said. “Which is really significant.”
Gouveia says more than 8,000 people die from tobacco-related diseases in Massachusetts each year. She adds that introducing nicotine at a young age can have negative effects on a person’s brain, which continues to develop until age 26.
“Makes it much more likely that folks will continue to use other substances,” she said. “It basically changes some of the composition within the brain and the brain chemistry. Particularly this is of course a concern with exposure to or the likelihood that a young person will start to use other drugs. It also really sets them up for a lifetime of addiction to nicotine. Ninety-nine percent of all adult smokers report that they started smoking before the age of 18.”
Gouveia adds that tobacco companies target younger people through flavored cigars and e-cigarettes.
“We sometimes see cigars that sell for 25 cents in a local gas station,” Gouveia said. “That’s really easy for a kid to pull together 25 cents. It’s cheaper than buying an iTunes song if you think about it.”
Saying there have been reports of middle schoolers using e-cigarettes in the area, Wilusz says Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s proposed ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors can be a tool in the arsenal of fighting tobacco use, especially in a product area that’s not heavily regulated.
“These e-cigarettes and vap-pens, they have ones now that look like USB ports where you can put memory on it and all this crazy stuff that’s attracting the newer generation,” Wilusz said. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there now with some of these other tobacco products. Is it a health hazard? Is it not? Well it must not be because the state and federal government aren’t regulating it so it’s no big deal.”
He adds raising the tobacco purchasing age will be more effective if clusters of towns do it together—without that, youths would be able to go to a neighboring town that doesn’t have such a standard. The town of Lanesborough passed tobacco regulations in early March, including raising the age of purchase to 21, but that won't take affect until 2018 with the hope that other towns join in, according to Lanesborough Town Administrator Paul Sieloff.
While Gouveia says raising the age is not the magic bullet, she says it may cut off access to tobacco for many younger teenagers.
“When we do surveys in the state and across the country what we learn is that most teens who smoke and use tobacco report getting their cigarettes or products from a friend or someone in their peer group,” Gouveia said. “Ninety percent of those who provide cigarettes to younger teens are under the age of 21.”
Last year laws setting the minimum price of single cigars to $2.50 and banning smoking in 29 public parks went into effect in Pittsfield. Wilusz says health boards throughout the Berkshires will continue to meet this spring and summer to look at raising the purchasing age. He says the thinking is to have a three-year period after passage to allow those aged 18 to buy until they are 21.