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The Massachusetts House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved raising the minimum age for purchasing cigarettes and other tobacco or vaping products from 18 to 21, a move that would bring the entire state in line with a policy already adopted by many of its cities and towns.
The new age requirement is part of legislation aimed at discouraging teens from taking up tobacco. Other provisions include a ban on vaping on school grounds and other public places, and a prohibition on the sale of tobacco products by pharmacies or stores within health care facilities.
"Smoking simply is killing our kids," said Democratic Rep. Kate Hogan, of Stow. "If young people start smoking before 21, they often become smokers for life."
Hogan, the Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, added: "We believe this legislation is critical to saving the lives of our young people."
The 146-4 vote in the House sends the bill on to the Senate, which passed a similar measure during the 2015-2016 legislative session. Gov. Charlie Baker has hinted he is supportive of the bill.
Boston is among more than 170 cities and towns in Massachusetts — accounting for more than 70 percent of the state's population -- where local ordinances set 21 as the minimum age for purchasing tobacco, according to a tally kept by Tobacco 21, a national organization that supports the higher age.
Five states -- California, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey and Oregon -- currently have Tobacco 21 laws.
If it becomes law, the Massachusetts bill would take effect on Jan. 1. It would not apply to anyone who is already 18 by that date.
Convenience store owners who typically derive a significant share of their income from tobacco sales have resisted efforts to change the legal age, though many have also expressed a preference for a single statewide standard as opposed to the confusing patchwork of local rules and regulations that exist now.
The Coalition for Responsible Retailing, an industry group, has criticized what it calls a "loophole" in state law that makes it illegal for stores to sell tobacco to minors, but not a crime for minors to use tobacco they obtain from someone else, such as a friend or family member, or that they might buy legally in another state.
The coalition says Massachusetts should make possession of tobacco illegal for minors and impose fines on any adult -- even a parent -- who provides tobacco to a minor.
The House rejected, without debate, amendments proposed by Republican lawmakers that would have required persons under 21 caught with tobacco at least three times to perform community service, and allow police to confiscate tobacco or vaping products from minors.
Several lawmakers recounted losing family members to tobacco-related illnesses. Democratic Rep. Cory Atkins, of Concord, recounted her own experience getting hooked on cigarettes at age 14.
"I can't tell you what it took to quit," she said, finally doing so almost 20 years later.
With additional reporting by WBUR's Steve Brown
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