Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and his Public Health Commission moved Wednesday to raise the minimum age for buying cigarettes and tobacco products - including e-cigarettes – from 18 to 21 come mid-February.
Walsh made clear his goal is to slash the number of teens who take up the habit.
"It's about the public health. It's about preventing people from starting smoking," Walsh said during a press conference at Fenway High School on Mission Hill. "Most longtime smokers started when they were too young to make a better choice. Smokers are the first to tell you that."
New York City has already adopted the 21 age for tobacco, and so have many of Boston’s neighbors. According to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, 80 of the Bay State’s 351 cities and towns have a minimum age of 21, communities that are in total home to 29.3 percent of the state's population. That includes the eastern Massachusetts cities of Braintree, Cambridge, Melrose, Methuen, Newton and Salem, and Greenfield and Holyoke in western Massachusetts.
Further restricting Boston tobacco sales could raise hackles from convenience-store owners who'd have already thin profit margins pinched from no longer being allowed to sell to 20-, 19- and 18-year-olds. The minimum age of 21 has also been widely attacked by personal-freedom libertarians who often ask why 18-year-olds can serve in the military and vote in elections – but not be given the freedom to choose to drink or smoke.
Day-to-day enforcement of restrictions on tobacco sales is largely overseen by the city public health commission. Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said he foresaw no problem with his department being called in to enforce the law and arrest violators if necessary.
"We do a lot of sting operations watching for liquor," Evans said. "It's not much of a stretch to do the same for young kids buying cigarettes inside stores."
Under the ordinance, it would be a prosecutable crime for people under 21 to buy cigarettes and tobacco products, Walsh aides said. But the law would not allow police to arrest and charge people under 21 they see smoking or chewing tobacco or using e-cigarettes. Nor, unlike alcohol laws, would it become a crime for people under 21 to be in possession of tobacco products the ordinance forbids them to buy.
Walsh was flanked by several young people who back the higher age, and we found several Boston students who think smoking is uncool and unhealthy.
Isaac Livingston, a freshman at Fenway High from Roxbury, said without the new restriction, "people are going to become smokers, and that could kind of like mess things up. So I agree with raising the age from 18 to 21."
His friend Roger Williams, from Hyde Park, agreed: "That's what I think. You [should] have to be a full-on grown adult, over age 21, to be able to buy cigarettes."
Walsh's ordinance would also ban the sale of flavored cigars and cigarillos except in establishments open only to people over 21 because, Walsh said, the cheap, fruity products appear designed to get young people addicted to nicotine.
Pelumi Aderogba, a senior at Boston Trinity Academy in Hyde Park who appeared with the mayor at the press conference, said, "The flavor restriction is important to me because I see a lot of other young people are tempted by these creative and tasty flavors every single day. This age restriction is good for teenagers like me, because we are likely to have friends that are 18 who would be willing to buy these products for us."
Boston often gets criticism from college students for having nightclubs that close at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. and a subway system that shuts down before 1 a.m. Walsh said he’s not worried about the teen tobacco purchasing ban hurting the city’s reputation as a college mecca.
"I don't think it's going to put a blemish on our city," Walsh said. "There's other great reasons why young people want to be in this city."
With videographer Justin Mintzes