The Boston Board of Health voted unanimously Dec. 17 to change the minimum age to purchase cigarettes in Boston from 18 to 21.
Boston is now among more than 85 cities and towns in Massachusetts to adopt an increased tobacco-buying age. Worcester is not.
The proposal was submitted by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and will take effect on Feb. 15, 2016, despite opposition from a group representing the city’s tobacco retailers and convenience stores.
In a statement, Walsh said, “We know the consequences of tobacco use are real and can be devastating. These changes send a strong message that Boston takes the issue of preventing tobacco addiction seriously, and I hope that message is heard throughout Boston and across the entire country.”
Although cigarette use among high school students in Boston is half the national rate of 15.7 percent, the city’s Board of Health acted to increase the age due to increased use of e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco.
Worcester prohibits the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18.
Worcester Mayor Joseph M. Petty applauded the efforts of Walsh and the change in Boston’s tobacco ordinance.
“Over the last year we’ve seen these sorts of ordinances pass in other states. Mayor Walsh is right to push the issue and pass this ordinance,” Petty said. “He has been a true leader on issues of addiction and if it keeps more young people from becoming smokers then it is something we should look at as a city.”
With a potential statewide tobacco age increase on the horizon, will Worcester wait for state laws to change the age, or will the city follow Boston’s lead and increase the age on its own?
“Regarding tobacco, one of the City Manager’s first initiatives upon taking office was to create a Board of Health with regulatory powers, in order to tackle important public health issues like smoking,” city of Worcester Communications Specialist John Hill said in a statement to the Sun.
“As you know, recently the city passed a comprehensive set of reforms to Worcester’s tobacco ordinances, aimed at reducing underage smoking and restricting smoking in sensitive places, like parks and outside hospitals. City Manager [Edward M.] Augustus [Jr.] supports the Board of Health investigating all options to help reduce smoking among young people.”
In November, the Worcester City Council passed a series of changes put forward by public health officials aimed at reducing smoking among young people, reducing environmental tobacco smoke, and regulating the use of e-cigarettes and flavored tobacco.
The amended ordinance expands regulations to cover liquid nicotine, regulates nicotine delivery products and e-cigarettes as tobacco products, banned smoking at city-owned establishments including public parks and swimming pools, and expanded and increased a number of tobacco-related sales fines and permit violations.
Concerned that the city’s Division of Public Health is gaining too much power, City Councilor Michael T. Gaffney said in an email to the Sun, “As we are in the season of predictions, it is just a matter of time before the unelected, nearly unaccountable Board of Health begins to impose its ever powerful reach over any and all aspects of the lives of the citizens of Worcester. Already, they are reviewing items regarding the sale of tobacco that were struck from the recent ordinance approved after multiple Hearings before the Public Health Subcommittee.”
Gaffney said that the Board of Health is supported by the city’s administration, “activists,” and the city’s Community Health Improvement Plan’s Domain 2, which has a goal to reduce the number of high school students using tobacco below the state rate by 2020.
“I have been and continue to be against any unelected group that holds power over our rights. It is simply un-American, anti-Democratic, and shows that our elected leaders are political cowards that are willing to relinquish the responsibilities of their office. I warned everyone in my opposition to the creation of the Board that once this train left the station, there would be no return trip.”
“Should the legal smoking age be increased from 18 to 21? Unlike so many in politics that would surrender our rights to make our own decisions under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, I actually volunteered to give my life or take another to protect those freedoms. I was 19 when I enlisted,” Gaffney added.
According to public health statistics: there are more than 30,000 smokers residing in the city; on average five people die each week in Worcester from tobacco-related illnesses; and the lung cancer fatality rate in Worcester is 17 percent higher compared to Massachusetts as a whole.
Worcester City Councilor Gary Rosen expects the state legislature to pass a statewide increase in the tobacco purchasing age sometime in 2016.
“I assume that the city’s Board of Health is considering making a similar recommendation to the Worcester City Council. Although such action will be a financial hit for local stores that sell tobacco products, I suppose anything that discourages our youth from becoming early smokers is good policy-making,” Rosen said.
“How effective such a change would be remains to be seen. While the legal drinking age is 21, it’s no secret that kids in middle and high school often imbibe. All too often they find adults willing to take the risk of buying for them.”
Rosen went on to point out that Massachusetts is pushing for stricter regulations on tobacco, when the prospect of legalizing marijuana is on the table.
“It’s ironic that, at the same time that Massachusetts is discouraging cigarette smoking, it seems to be getting closer to legalizing marijuana for recreational use,” Rosen said. “I think I’d rather have motorists and pilots smoking cigarettes when driving and flying instead of being high on pot.”