The Senate recently passed legislation raising the age for legal purchase of tobacco from 18 to 21. I was pleased to support the bill, which now goes to the House for consideration.
The drive to raise the age is a response to the marketing of tobacco products to kids. Tobacco companies have an obvious interest in marketing to kids — one infamous internal memo included the line:
Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer, and the overwhelming majority of smokers first begin to smoke while still in their teens … The smoking patterns of teenagers are particularly important to Philip Morris.
Many of the new smokeless products are obviously targeted to kids — they come in a variety of sweet flavors in bright toy-like packaging that appeals to kids.
Bringing the smokeless nicotine products into our tobacco regulatory framework and raising the age will reduce the amount of addictive nicotine products circulating in high schools. Currently, 18-year-old high school seniors can buy tobacco. If the age is raised to 21, there will be fewer seniors sharing tobacco with younger kids in their school networks.
The new rules would not apply to kids who are already 18. So, for example, a 19 year old will be able to continue to use tobacco and work their way off their addiction at their own pace.
The bill continues the relatively light regime of penalties for tobacco violations — that was very important for me. I feel that there are already too many ways for kids to get in trouble with the criminal justice system.
Under current law, there are no specific penalties for minors who posses or consume tobacco. Apparently, Massachusetts is one of only five states that does not impose penalties on minors who purchase or possess tobacco. The only penalties adhere to those who sell or give tobacco to minors and these are fine-only offenses — they are not punishable by incarceration: $100 for the first offense.
The only punishments for minors using tobacco are those imposed by schools under whatever policies they may develop — state law does prohibit use of tobacco in schools, but leaves disciplinary policy to the individual school districts.
The new proposed law would not create new penalties, but a compromise floor amendment added language allowing law enforcement officers to confiscate tobacco from kids under 21 and, in the case of kids under 18 to notify their parents (without in any way logging or keeping any record of the notice).
In general, I am against punishment as a strategy for reducing addiction. For example, I oppose our criminalization of marijuana and feel that we should be very cautious in forcing treatment, even on persons involved in harder drugs.
I was able to support this bill because it is really not about punishment. Most retailers will comply with the new rule without being fined and kids themselves are not exposed to material new punishments.
Massachusetts will not be the first state to raise the age — Hawaii was the first and California just approved the increase.
The age increase seems reasonably calculated to reduce the circulation of tobacco in the social networks of young teenagers. As a teenager, I watched two of my grandparents suffer greatly from ailments related to their life-long tobacco habits. I never picked up a habit, but I know from many friends how hard it is to quit.
I do believe that this modest bill will save lives. As always, I appreciate your feedback.
Some, in objecting to raising the age, focus on the fact that 18-year-olds can vote and serve in the military. However, there are a number of different age thresholds and putting the purchase of tobacco at 21 would fit well. The following list was prepared by Senator Jason Lewis’s office.
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