Tobacco purchasing age rises to 21 in Williamstown

On Sept. 1, Williamstown raised the legal age for purchasing tobacco to 21.

At a public hearing in July, the Board of Health voted unanimously to raise the age from 18 to 21, after hearing exclusively positive testimonials from attendees.

Last year, Williamstown banned the sale of cigarettes at healthcare facilities and in front of counter, as well as flavored e-cigarettes excluding menthol, and single cigars.

Dr. Win Stuebner, member of the Williamstown Board of Health, said that the ban is a natural extension of last year’s measures.

“We thought that if we were going to go the whole way,” he said, “and we believed that we should, we ought to also increase the age to 21.”

Williamstown was the 61st municipality in the Commonwealth and the second municipality in the Berkshires to raise the age. Other municipalities include Amherst and Cambridge.

No towns immediately surrounding Williamstown have instituted this policy change; however, Stuebner believes that the measure will still have positive effects.

In 2005, Needham became the first town in Massachusetts to raise the age from 18 to 21 and saw a decrease in children under 18 buying cigarettes from 18.4 percent to 11.6 percent over seven years, even though no surrounding communities instituted similar policies. In neighboring communities, over the same time frame, the number slightly decreased, from 19.4 percent to 19 percent.

“It does make a difference,” Stuebner said. “A big part of it is that when you’re in high school, 19 is still part of your peer group. 21 not so much.”

He pointed out a study from March 2015 by the Institute of Medicine that showed a small quantitative difference in initiation rates of smoking when raising the age from 18 to 19 and a large difference when raising the age to 21. The study showed only a small marginal increase in effectiveness when raising the legal age from 21 to 25.

According to the study, 90 percent of daily smokers reported their first usage of cigarettes before age 19 and almost 100 percent began before age 26. The Institute concluded that raising the minimum legal age would most heavily affect 15 to 17-year-olds and likely “prevent or delay initiation of tobacco use by adolescents and young adults.”

Stuebner said that the Board has not heard any complaints from merchants in the local area, except Rite-Aid, which sent a formal letter of complaint after the Board banned healthcare facilities from selling cigarettes. Rite-Aid is the only healthcare facility that sold cigarettes in Williamstown. According to Stuebner, however, tobacco made up less than .1 percent of Rite-Aid’s sales.

Stuebner is the Medical Director of the Berkshire Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice and works primarily in hospice, where he says he sees the effects of smoking frequently.

“You see the results of smoking young so many years later,” he said. “This is just a common sense health measure.”

Stuebner said the Board is  not concerned about the economic impact of the decision, as tobacco sales are not a large source of revenue for Williamstown.

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