BOSTON >> Legislation that would raise the state's legal tobacco purchasing age to 21, ban tobacco sales in pharmacies and regulate e-cigarettes will be debated in the Massachusetts Senate next week, according to the Senate's top Democrat.
"The next big matter before the Senate will be raising the legal age to purchase cigarettes from 18 to 21, and also do some additional regulation on e-cigarettes, I think they're called," Senate President Stanley Rosenberg told the News Service Tuesday.
Based on eight separate tobacco bills filed by House and Senate lawmakers this session, the Joint Committee on Public Health put together a bill (S 2152) dubbed "An Act to protect youth from the health risks of tobacco and nicotine addiction" that is now before the Senate Ways and Means Committee and slated to hit the Senate floor in formal session on April 28.
Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, described the bill's three main provisions -- a three-year increase in the age for tobacco sales, a ban on sales in pharmacies and the addition of e-cigarettes to the state's anti-smoking laws -- as "proven strategies for reducing nicotine addiction among young people."
"I think we will have strong bipartisan support for the legislation," Lewis told the News Service. "We already have many of our cities and towns that have taken these steps at the municipal level."
In 2005, Needham became the first municipality in the country to ban tobacco sales to people under 21. Nearly 100 Massachusetts communities have since followed suit, with most lifting the sale age from 18 to 21 and some raising it to 19, Lewis said.
Boston is among the most recent communities to hike its smoking age to 21, doing so in December while also adopting regulations banning the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine-delivery products in stores "other than adult only retail tobacco stores and smoking bars." The new rules approved by the city's Board of Health went into effect in February despite objections from the Boston Convenience Store Owners Association, which supported the higher purchasing age, but said the restrictions on flavored tobacco could hurt their businesses.
Hawaii is the only state in the country where people must be 21 to purchase tobacco products. A bill that would set the age to 21 in California has cleared both chambers of the state Legislature there, but has not yet been signed into law. The legal age is 19 in Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah.
Lewis said that when the committee was drafting its tobacco legislation members met with various stakeholders, including e-cigarette shop owners, other retailers and representatives of convenience store associations and the tobacoo industry.
"I think we really worked hard to get everybody's input and perspectives, and I think the legislation seeks to incorporate that," Lewis said. "So I'm hopeful that there will be substantial support for the bill and hopefully minimal opposition at this point."
The Retailers Association of Massachusetts is "still kind of trying to decide exactly where we stand" on the bill, RAM general counsel Ryan Kearney said Tuesday. Kearney said the organization is still working out whether it will fully oppose the bill or seek to address its members concerns via amendments.
Kearney said the higher smoking age in Massachusetts could push customers to similar stores in bordering states like New Hampshire, where the age remains 18, taking with them not just the revenue from tobacco sales but from whatever ancillary purchases they would make while in the store. The ban on tobacco sales at health care institutions, including pharmacies, could also disadvantage some retailers, he said.
"Some of our members have chosen to go ahead and take on that label of health care institution and not sell tobacco at all, but there are other retail pharmacies that the retail end of their business is more important than being seen as a health care institution," Kearney said. "So to them, they're competing with other retailers, and if they can't have a certain product on their shelf that others can, that's a competitive disadvantage to them."
Supporters of higher smoking ages say that most users of tobacco products begin as teenagers. The American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network backs the bill, as does the coalition Tobacco Free Mass. The Massachusetts Medical Society testified last July in favor of both raising the tobacco age and restricting sales in health care institutions.
"What this bill is designed to do is reduce tobacco use and nicotine addiction among youth, and in so doing, we can improve our health, we can save lives, and we can also reduce health care costs," Lewis said.
Besides raising the tobacco purchase age, the bill the Senate plans to take up next week would ban the use of e-cigarettes in places like schools, restaurants and workplaces where cigarettes are already prohibited; require child-resistant packaging on e-cigarettes; ban tobacco vending machines and require the Center for Health Information and Analysis to study the tobacco cessation benefits offered by commercial insurers, MassHealth and the Group Insurance Commission.