Massachusetts House lawmakers voted Wednesday raise the statewide age for purchasing tobacco and e-cigarettes to 21 and to ban vaping from workplaces.
The bill (H 4479), which passed 146-4, next heads to the Senate, which passed similar legislation last session.
Pharmacies would also be barred from selling tobacco products under the bill, which received strong bipartisan support. Many pharmacies have already removed cigarettes from their shelves, and 175 cities and towns have raised their tobacco purchase age up from 18 – the minimum age statewide, according to the Cancer Action Network.
Cigarettes and other addictive and harmful tobacco products have long posed public health quandaries, and electronic cigarettes – which deliver to the user a heated vapor that often includes nicotine – have become popular more recently, especially among young people.
Two lawmakers used personal stories to make their case for the bill. In his first time speaking on the House floor, freshman Rep. Brian Murray of Milford said after his grandfather died prematurely because of "constant cigar smoking," his dad would show legal clients who smoked pictures of diseased lungs in hopes of persuading them to drop the habit.
Rep. Cory Atkins of Concord said she started smoking at 14 "because everybody else was smoking when they were 14 years old."
"When I was 33, I can't tell you what it took to quit," she said. "Some people say some heroin addicts have quit easier and more gracefully than I quit smoking cigarettes, and I think they were right."
Dracut Rep. Colleen Garry was the only Democrat to vote against the bill, which was also opposed by Republican Reps. Nick Boldyga, of Southwick; Marc Lombardo, of Billerica; and James Lyons, of Andover.
Whitman Republican Rep. Geoff Diehl, who received the endorsement of his party in his U.S. Senate bid, and Lakeville Rep. Keiko Orrall, the Republican candidate for treasurer, both voted in favor of the measure.
"Research shows that if a person does not begin smoking at a young age, they are much less likely to ever smoke. In fact, 95 percent of adults who smoke started smoking before the age of 21 and nearly 100 percent started by age 26," Marc Hymovitz, Massachusetts director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said in a statement.
He said, "Tobacco is the number one cause of preventable death nationwide, and one-third of all cancer deaths are related to tobacco use. Raising the age of sale for tobacco products is a step toward saving lives, and restricting youth and young adult access to tobacco products can be a critical component of a comprehensive strategy to reduce initiation and lifelong tobacco addiction."
Rep. Kate Hogan, a Stow Democrat and the House chairwoman of the Public Health Committee, said she was only a little surprised by the lopsided nature of Wednesday's vote.
"In some ways, I was, but when you're working a bill for longer than a year and you're able to have the hearings and listen to all sides, and bring people to the table, oftentimes as you move forward you find that you're able to develop more and more support for a bill," Hogan said. "And I think that everyone knows someone that has had difficulty quitting, that has come down with illnesses related to tobacco and addiction, and I think that people felt like know was the time to pass this legislation."
Two groups representing retailers, the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association and the Coalition for Responsible Retailing, have voiced concerns that the bill focuses only on the selling of tobacco products instead of directly restricting use or possession by youth.
"It's far more effective to focus on those who are underage, just like they do for alcohol and marijuana," Jon Shaer of the convenience stores association said Tuesday. "We'd just like to see some retailer parity."
Dennis Lane of the Coalition for Responsible Retailing said before the bill passed that he believed the age hike was a "foregone conclusion," and would "probably stabilize the landscape for all the retailers" who are now faced with a patchwork of different local policies.
"Tobacco is a very important part of convenience stores," Lane told the News Service. "If done responsibly, selling to only people of legal age, that's within our rights. We're selling a legal product, it's legally available to people of legal age. Retailers are the gatekeepers. We are the ones who actually check the ID, we verify the ID."
During discussion of the bill, Rep. Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican, asked Hogan if people under age 21 in his district would still be able to use vaping products they buy in nearby New Hampshire. In response, Hogan said, "This is not a possession bill, but a purchase bill, and vaping will be prohibited any place that smoking is prohibited."
Hogan and other lawmakers who spoke in favor of the bill highlighted the health care costs associated with smoking, a number she pegged at $4 billion annually in Massachusetts.
"There are studies that have shown 18- to 20-year-olds represent approximately 2 percent of all cigarettes consumed, and while it's true that small businesses or convenience stores may experience a slight decrease in sales, the loss will quickly be replaced by potential health care cost savings," said Dedham Rep. Paul McMurtry, the bill's sponsor.
This report was originally published by State House News Service.