State health chief mum on raising tobacco age

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BOSTON >> Speaking to advocates visiting Beacon Hill to promote cancer prevention, Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said Thursday that more needs to be done prevent young people from using tobacco, but stopped short of endorsing a bill that calls for raising the tobacco purchasing age in Massachusetts from 18 to 21.

Bharel spoke after a several lawmakers, including Sen. Jason Lewis and Rep. Kate Hogan, co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Public Health, touted a bill (S 2152) recommended by their panel last week and sent to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

"We cannot talk about cancer prevention without talking about tobacco. We can't talk about tobacco without talking about youth. We know that almost everybody who begins to use tobacco begins as a young adult. We have to do something about tobacco control and tobacco control for the youngest among us," Bharel said at an American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network lobby day.

Asked about her thoughts on the Senate's tobacco measure following her remarks, Bharel explained how the focus of cancer prevention is rooted in early detection, screenings and educating young people about the negative effects of tobacco. She also said local municipalities who are taking up policies, such as raising the legal age to 21, are also a key piece to lowering youth tobacco rates.

"All of these are policies that we need to look at, which we're really happy as an administration that local towns and municipalities are looking at and taking up because it's really critical to make sure we educate," Bharel told the News Service. Pressed further on her own opinion of bill, she said she's "happy to see the legislature take up a bill looking at all different potential ways of making sure that young people don't have access to tobacco."

Lawmakers in California this week moved a bill to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk that would increase the tobacco purchase age to 21. According to the bill's sponsor, Sen. Ed Hernandez, Hawaii and more than 130 municipalities across the U.S. have raised the legal tobacco age to 21.

"This is California's chance to make history by drastically reducing Big Tobacco's ability to target and poison our youth. We will no longer stand idly by while they continue to get generation after generation addicted," Hernandez said in a statement Thursday. "We need to make this happen for the sake of our children and the overall health of our state."

The Massachusetts bill would raise the smoking age to 21 and ban pharmacies from selling cigarettes and other tobacco products. Electronic cigarettes and "other similar products that rely on vaporization or aerosolization" would be included in the definition of tobacco products that cannot be used in public places or sold to minors. The bill also bans the use of tobacco products by any person at schools, on buses and at school-sponsored events.

Youth smoking rates have decreased, according to Bharel, who in her remarks said that 48 municipalities have passed regulations restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products.


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