Massachusetts poised to raise tobacco purchasing age

BOSTON (AP) – Massachusetts is close to becoming the latest U.S. state to require people to be at least 21 before they can buy cigarettes or other tobacco or vaping products.

A bill to boost the minimum purchasing age from 18 to 21 achieved overwhelming final approval in the state House and Senate on Thursday, sending it to the desk of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who previously signaled support for the idea.

If Baker signs the measure, Massachusetts would join California, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey and Oregon – along with several large U.S. cities including New York City and Chicago – with similar laws, according to the advocacy group Tobacco 21.

Well over half of all Massachusetts residents already live in communities that have passed local ordinances setting 21 as the minimum age for buying tobacco. The Boston suburb of Needham was the first community in the nation to do so in 2005, and advocates have pointed to studies showing a sharp drop in teen smoking rates in the town since the ordinance took effect.

“Research shows that if a person does not begin smoking at a young age, they are much less likely to ever smoke,” said Marc Hymovitz, the Massachusetts director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

While the bill prohibits the sale of tobacco to people under 21, it would not make it illegal for minors to use tobacco, nor would it be a crime for a parent or other adult to give a cigarette or tobacco product to a minor.

The new age would be phased in over three years, so that anyone already old enough to buy tobacco could continue to do so.

The bill also bans vaping on school grounds and other public places, and would make Massachusetts the first U.S. state to outlaw the sale of tobacco in all pharmacies.

“Massachusetts’s action provides valuable momentum for the growing, nationwide movement to increase the tobacco age to 21,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Concerns about the higher age were raised by convenience store owners and other retailers, especially those near bordering states where the purchasing age would remain 18. But many also said they preferred a uniform state requirement as opposed to a patchwork of local ordinances.

At the request of retailers, lawmakers added a provision to the bill that would prevent any city or town from moving to raise the tobacco purchasing age any higher than 21.