Must Be 21 to Buy Tobacco in Wakefield
Starting July 1
Starting July 1, you won’t be able to buy cigarettes or any other tobacco products in Wakefield, Massachusetts if you are less than 21 years old. The Board of Health voted to amend local regulations this week by raising the age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21. The board’s unanimous vote came after a public hearing that included testimony from advocates for and against the change.
Matthew T. Durand, an attorney for Cumberland Farms, spoke against increasing the age for purchasing tobacco products.
“We believe that this proposal would succeed primarily in hurting local businesses – like our convenience store at 200 Lowell St. – without ensuring any proven public health benefits in return,” Durand testified.
Durand attributed Cumberland Farms success to its ability to provide customers with products that they demand, including heavily regulated items like tobacco, beer and wine, gasoline and lottery tickets.
“Therefore we take great care to comply with relevant laws and to train employees accordingly,” Durand said. “With respect to tobacco products, we are particularly proud of our exceptional record of FDA compliance checks.”
Durand cited a 2007 Massachusetts General Hospital study that he claimed showed no association between the relative strength of local age regulations for tobacco purchase and the rate of tobacco use by underage residents.
He claimed that increasing the age would simply cause customers to take their business online, into the black market or across town borders. When customers go elsewhere for tobacco, Durand, insisted, “Cumberland Farms stands a very good chance of losing their business for food, beverages, motor fuels and other items as well.”
Wakefield Police Chief Rick Smith spoke in favor of the proposal. He said that in his 40 years in law enforcement he had seen first-hand the powers of addiction on 18-21 year-olds. He pointed out that 90 percent of underage smokers get their cigarettes from those age 18-21.
Smith said that he had never seen a business forced to close due to increasing the age for tobacco sales, but he said that police go on hundreds of medical aid calls a year for heart and lung problems related to smoking. He added that his priority was to “give young people every opportunity to be healthy and strong.”
Smith said that the local level was the best place to regulate tobacco sales because the tobacco lobby is very powerful at the state and federal levels.
Mark Panagakas of Mark’s Smoke Shop at Main St. delivered a petition signed by over 100 residents opposed to the age increase. He said that he had been in business in Wakefield for 18 years and had never had a violation for selling tobacco to minors.
Panagakas pointed out that tobacco is a legal product that is taxed and the government uses those taxes to fund many worthwhile programs.
“If we can send 18-21 year-olds off to war, who are we to tell them they can’t enjoy a legal product?” Panagakas asked.
Panagakas further pointed to a letter to the board from the Wakefield Chamber of Commerce expressing opposition to the proposed change.
Dr. Lester Hartman attempted to debunk a number of the arguments of the convenience store owners. He maintained that raising the age would result in a loss of only 2.5 percent of convenience stores’ tobacco revenue. He noted that restaurants also claimed that they would go out of business when smoking was banned, but that didn’t happen.
He said that when Needham hiked the age for tobacco sales to 21 in 2005, not one convenience store went out of business, but there was a 50 percent drop in tobacco use by high school students.
Hartman said that 90 percent of smokers start before age 21. Once a person reaches age 21, he said, there is statistically only a 2 percent chance of that person becoming a smoker.
Reynolds Road resident Peg Sallade said that people tend to look at the issue of tobacco as a business or civil liberties issue, but they should be looking at it as a public health issue. She said that studies have shown that it only takes a few cigarettes over a few days for addiction to develop, and kids are not equipped to make sound judgments.
“The longer we delay smoking, the less likely they will get addicted,” Sallade said.
Larry Blauvet said that he operates “EZ Cig Vapors,” an e-cigarette store at 88 Albion St. He insisted that his products helped people to quit smoking and he would not sell to anyone unless they were already a smoker. Blauvet said that he supported raising the age for sale of tobacco products to 21.
Health Director Ruth Clay reminded the board that 18 communities in Massachusetts had already raised the age to 21 for tobacco sales and others were in the process of considering such moves.
Before making the motion to raise the age to 21, Health Board member Alison Mehlman stressed that no one should see the move as anti-business. She noted that she personally tries to support local businesses by shopping in Wakefield whenever possible.
“This is a health issue, not a local business issue,” Mehlman said. “The harder we make it to have access, the more kids won’t become smokers in the first place.”
[This column originally appeared in the March 20, 2014 Wakefield Daily Item.]
Cumberland Farms photo by Charles Hathaway.
Filed under: Columns & Essays, Wakefield, Politics, News | 2 Comments
Tags: Massachusetts, Wakefield MA, Police Chief Rick Smith, smoking, Board of Health, cigarettes, cigars, tobacco, convenience stores, Dr. Lester Hartman, Matthew Durand, Mark's Smoke Shop, Mark Panagakas