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A statewide ban on the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21 cleared a legislative committee on Thursday, and supporters said they were hopeful for final passage within months.
Boston recently raised the legal age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21, joining dozens of communities around the state that have made the change in recent years and building momentum for a uniform statewide law.
Rep. Kate Hogan, a Stow Democrat and House chair of the Public Health Committee, said young people are particularly susceptible to nicotine addiction.
"With this legislation, [Massachusetts] has a real opportunity to intervene during the early formative years to prevent young people from using tobacco products and becoming addicted to nicotine, a habit that can last through their entire lives," Hogan said.
The bill would not punish minors for smoking, only make it illegal to sell tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to people under 21. Those already between 18 and 21 would be allowed to continue buying tobacco, but anyone not yet 18 at the date the proposed law became effective would have to wait until age 21.
Hogan said a statewide standard would eliminate confusion caused by the current patchwork of local rules.
The push to hike the minimum age has begun to gain traction nationally, as well.
On Tuesday, San Francisco supervisors voted to have the city join New York and Boston as major U.S. cities with tobacco 21 rules. Hawaii last year became the first state with such a law.
In January, the Democratic-led Legislature in New Jersey approved a bill raising the legal tobacco purchase age to 21, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie declined to sign it.
Ryan Kearney, general counsel for the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said the group has not taken a formal position on the bill but its impact would be felt by convenience stores and gas stations that sell tobacco.
"It's not only the direct sales they are worried about but the indirect sales," Kearney said.
Customers who go to stores for cigarettes will often put gas in their cars or buy other products while there, he said.
Democratic Sen. Jason Lewis, of Winchester, the Senate chair of the public health panel, said any loss in tobacco tax revenue from passage of the bill would be offset by health care savings resulting from fewer smoking-related illnesses.
Backers have cited national studies, including a March 2015 report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies that found about 90 percent of daily smokers first used cigarettes before the age of 19. A legal age of 21 would "likely prevent or delay initiation of tobacco use by adolescents and young adults," the report's authors wrote.
Along with the legal purchase age, the bill includes provisions such as a ban on tobacco sales at pharmacies and health care facilities and a requirement that e-cigarettes be sold with child-resistant packaging.
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