NORTH ADAMS — In the city with the highest adult smoking rate in the state, the Board of Health proposes raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products to 21.
The board agreed on Wednesday to set a public hearing in April on the proposal, which in addition to raising the age to purchase from 18 to 21 also caps the number of retail sales licenses available in North Adams.
There are 20 active tobacco retailers in the city, and the new regulations would allow a maximum of 23 licenses. New retailers would be required to be at least 500 feet away from a school zone.
Other regulations in the proposal include a ban on flavored tobacco and single cigar sales. Any package of two or more cigars would need to cost at least $5.
The proposal also includes a fine structure, beginning at $100 for the first offense for a retailer who sells tobacco to an underage person. It will take 24 months without a violation for a retailer to expunge the record.
More than 80 communities across the state have already raised the legal age to 21, and a state law could soon make that the same for every community.
Several other communities in Berkshire County have instituted similar regulations, including neighbor Williamstown; and Adams is currently reviewing its laws. The city of Pittsfield delayed a vote on similar regulation changes in February but is expected to continue the regulation change adoption process next week.
Among the staggering statistics compiled in state Department of Public Health data for North Adams, it is estimated that the city's rate of smoking during pregnancy is 394 percent higher than the state average.
The city's adult smoking rate of 32.2 percent is about twice the statewide average.
"I think the data speaks for itself," said board member and North Adams Ambulance Service General Manager John Meaney Jr., who supported raising the minimum age. Fellow board member Kevin Lamb mirrored Meaney's sentiments.
Supporters of the change note that the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly backs raising the smoking age to 21. Proponents point out that after the drinking age was raised to 21, the drinking rates among high school students dropped precipitously.
The city recently updated its smoking regulations in 2012, but the focus was geared toward curtailing e-cigarette and tobacco use on city parks and during city events.
James J. Wilusz, the executive director of public health at the Tri-Town Health Department in Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge, advised the board through the months-long process of crafting the proposed regulations. He said that while smoking cessation services are important in helping current smokers, the goal of new regulations is really to prevent young people from becoming addicted in the first place.
"Youth access regs are to obviously regulate the retail environment, and to protect our youth and young adults," Wilusz said. "Unfortunately, a lot of these retail stores that sell tobacco are within school zones."
Wilusz advised the board that there could be "a little bit of pushback" from retailers, but "most of the chain stores know it's coming ... There's a big buzz going on with Tobacco 21."
He advised the board to give a three-month warning period before the regulations actually take effect, if they are passed next month.
Board Chairman Brendan Bullett said he had gone back and forth on the proposal, but ultimately does not support raising the tobacco age to 21.
"Twenty-one I'm having a hard time with," Bullett said. I've gone back and forth on it since I've heard about it, and I know there's a hundred other communities that have done it; I'm just having a hard time. I'd sign off on everything else right now."
Bullett said he wishes it was statewide mandate.
Contact Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376.