Boston hikes age for buying cigarettes, tobacco to 21

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BOSTON (AP) — Boston health officials voted Thursday to raise the minimum age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products — including electronic cigarettes — from 18 to 21.

Mayor Marty Walsh said the city now joins more than 85 other Massachusetts cities and towns — as well as New York City and Hawaii — in hiking the age for purchasing cigarettes.

The Boston Board of Health also voted to increase the age for admission to adult-only retail tobacco stores and smoking bars to 21.

The changes will also limit the sale of flavored tobacco and nicotine products, other than menthol, to adult-only retailers.

"We know the consequences of tobacco use are real and can be devastating," Walsh said in a statement. "These changes send a strong message that Boston takes the issue of preventing tobacco addiction seriously."

The changes take effect Feb. 15.

A group representing convenience store and gas station owners opposed the age hike, saying it would hurt business while not addressing the problem of teen smoking.

Retailers said they have overwhelmingly been in compliance with current laws to keep tobacco away from children. They said Massachusetts should instead close loopholes in state law that allow adults, including parents and guardians, to provide tobacco products to teens below the current minimum purchase age.

New York City raised the minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21 in 2013. In June, Hawaii became the first state to do so, effective Jan. 1.

The Boston suburb of Needham in 2005 became the first U.S. town to impose a local ordinance setting the minimum age at 21.

Walsh said previous efforts to curb access to tobacco products among Boston high school students helped drive down the rate of cigarette use by young people from about 15 percent in 2005 to 8 percent in 2013.

But the mayor said the popularity of electronic cigarettes and flavored tobacco products is on the rise, leading to Thursday's vote by the Board of Health. He said the vast majority of voters begin smoking before turning 21.

Walsh said the changes approved Thursday are aimed at preventing teenagers from starting smoking by removing the sources of tobacco products from their social networks. Boston health officials also pointed to a 2013 survey that they said found that the use of inexpensive cigars and cigarillos among youth in Boston had increased to 20 percent.

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill that would make 21 the legal age for buying tobacco statewide.

Nearly 60 representatives and senators have signed on to legislation that would make it illegal to sell tobacco to people under 21, with penalties ranging from $100 up to $300 for repeat violations.

A change in the statewide minimum age could hurt state revenues.

In the last fiscal year, a cigarette excise tax raised $510 million for the state's general fund. About $136 million went to the state's health connector to help provide subsidized health care coverage, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

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