Why Massachusetts wants to raise the smoking age to 21

The Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill to raise the age limit for buying cigarettes to 21 as a way to further lower smoking rates by stopping access for high school students. 

Cathy Bussewitz/AP
Hawaii Gov. David Ige talks about raising the smoking age on June 19 in Honolulu. Ige signed a bill into law that made Hawaii the first state in the nation to raise the legal smoking age to 21, and Massachusetts is considering the same law.

Smoking may soon take a hit, as the Massachusetts legislature considers raising the age limit for buying cigarettes to 21 in order to decrease smoking among high schoolers. 

Needham, Mass., raised the age limit for buying cigarettes in 2005, and rates of high schoolers smoking dropped from 13 percent to 7 percent by 2010. During the same period, teen smoking dropped from 15 percent to 12 percent in 16 neighboring towns, Matt Rocheleau reported for the Boston Globe. 

By 2012, other communities saw the change and began to follow suit, Colleen Quinn reported for Boston.com. The Massachusetts legislature is considering an age limit of 21 instead of 18, the Associated Press reported. The age limit is 18 in all states except Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah, where it is 19, and Hawaii, where it is 21. 

Hawaii was the first state to raise the age limit on cigarettes to 21 in June, and California and Washington also considered it this year, The Christian Science Monitor reported. Critics in Hawaii opposed the change on civil liberties grounds, the AP reported.

"I can't stand cigarette smoking. It's disgusting," Hawaii state Rep. Angus McKelvey, a Democrat, told the Associated Press. "But to tell somebody you can go and fight for your country and get killed but you can't have a cigarette, that's the thing."

About 75 percent of American adults would be willing to risk it and support raising the age to 21, including 70 percent of cigarette smokers, according to a study by the Center for Disease Control. The CDC has welcomed raising the age for cigarette purchase as laws have been passed at the state level in Hawaii and in various local communities in Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

"Raising the minimum age of sale to 21 could benefit the health of Americans in several ways," Brian King, a deputy director in the CDC office on smoking and health said in a press release. "It could delay the age of first experimenting with tobacco, reducing the likelihood of transitioning to regular use and increasing the likelihood that those who do become regular users can quit."

Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital and spokeswoman at American Academy of Pediatrics supports raising the age for buying tobacco but says good parenting is a better anti-smoking strategy.

"I say raise it," she told Boston.com. "It would translate not only into less tobacco use but less disease and death. But we'd save even more lives if parents did more talking to their kids – about tobacco, about life as a teen, about anything and everything."

McCarthy's support is based on the idea that prevention is key, and most smokers start young. This is in line with a recent study by the CDC, which shows that younger groups and vulnerable populations are now disproportionately likely to smoke. Stopping smoking early could further reduce smoking in the US, as adult smoking rates have plummeted by 4 percent in the last decade, from 20.9 percent to 16.8 percent, including a full percentage-point drop in 2013 alone, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

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