The minimum age for buying tobacco products in Massachusetts could rise to 21 if House Speaker Robert DeLeo were to allow a vote on a bill. Supporters of raising the age say they have the support of Gov. Charlie Baker, which leaves the House of Representatives as the final hurdle in limiting access to underage smoking. While the State Senate would have to vote again this year, it last year supported a similar measure.
“Gov. Baker supports the concept of raising the legal age for tobacco sales to 21 years old to promote the health and safety of our young people and looks forward to carefully reviewing any legislation that comes to his desk," Baker spokeswoman Elizabeth Guyton wrote in a statement. Baker has maintained a policy of making very limited public statements on specific bills working their way through the Legislature, even when he supports the proposal's goal.
Baker's Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders went a step further, according to State Senator Jason Lewis.
Lewis told a crowd organized by the group Tobacco Free Massachusetts Thursday that Sudders told him that if lawmakers can get the bill to Baker's desk, he will sign it.
Dedham Rep. Paul McMurtry's bill (H. 2864) has 104 lawmakers are co-sponsors, over half of the entire Legislature. McMurtry's bill also would prohibit e-cigarettes in workplaces and ban all tobacco sales at pharmacies.
"When it comes to our young people, to teens, there's absolutely no question that they shouldn't begin using e-cigarettes," Lewis said.
Perhaps more importantly, a statewide law raising the smoking age to 21 would do away with the patchwork of city and town regulations that currently govern tobacco age restrictions. Nearly half the state's municipalities, 150 cities or towns, representing around 60 percent of the state's population, have already instituted a buying age of 21.
The smoking age bill was one of many pieces of legislation passed by a wide bipartisan margin in the Senate last year, only to die once it was sent to the House.
“The Senate passed it last term, the House did not, but I am told a very substantial number of both House members and Senate members are now co-sponsors of that and there seems to be some momentum,” Senate President Stan Rosenberg, also a supporter of the bill, told the Boston Herald Wednesday.
A main goal of the legislation is to limit youth access to tobacco by removing it from high school settings. Advocates say most beginner teenage smokers acquire products through 18 and 19 year old friends.
McMurtry told WGBH News the lobbying effort organized by Tobacco Free Massachusetts Thursday will be effective in wooing undecided lawmakers to support the bill. McMurtry said activists will spend the day holding one-on-one meetings with lawmakers and staff to highlight not only the health benefits of the bill, but the long term health benefits and cost savings.
The goal of the lobby effort was clear: convince enough House members to put the smoking age bill high on the short list of priority bills House leaders will take up this session.
"I'm optimist by nature. I'm going to remain optimistic and I'm hoping that in the grand scheme of the major priority pieces of legislation that we face that we'll see this session that this somehow is able to fit into it," McMurtry said.
"We've heard Gov. Baker, we've heard through casual conversations and secondary conversations that the bill has his support," McMurtry said.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has expressed interest in the bill, but has not set a time table for taking it up.
Dr. Lynda Young, chair of the Tobacco Free MA coalition, told the committee that 95 percent of smokers start before turning 21 and that smoking is still the leading cause of chronic disease and premature death. Young said a study of youth access to tobacco found a 13 percent reduction in the number of tobacco purchasers when pharmacies do not sell tobacco products.
At a State House hearing on the bill Tuesday, retailers pushed back on the lawmakers and public health advocates calling for a higher tobacco age. Dennis Lane from the Coalition for Responsible Retailing, told the Legislature's Public Health Committee that the measure would be ineffective in the fight to reduce teenage smoking.
"The most effective methods to prevent minors from obtaining tobacco products are greater enforcement of laws already in place and further access-prevention legislation," Lane said, according to the State House News Service.
Lane recommended that instead of limiting the ability of adults to buy tobacco, lawmakers should instead focus on under-age access and crack down on smoking in public places with children. Lane claimed at the hearing that retail sales at convenience stores would decrease by 20 percent should the tobacco age increase.
At the hearing, Lewis, the Senate Public Health Committee co-chair, disputed the idea that losing out on sales to 18, 19 and 20 year olds would cause a business drop off of a full fifth.