Needham’s anti-smoking legacy grows
Needham in 2005 raised the smoking age to 21, establishing a public policy on teen smoking that appears to be gaining momentum in Massachusetts and across the nation.
Salem became the latest convert on Thursday when the Witch City’s Board of Health voted 3-2 to raise the minimum age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21. Seven other Massachusetts communities and New York City adopted similar measures in 2013. And now several states, including New Jersey, are considering following suit, although similar statewide initiatives have failed in Utah, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
The so-called Tobacco 21 laws follow the same strategy used by the federal government in 1984, when it required states to raise the minimum drinking age to 21 in order to keep receiving highway funds. Research has shown that many people take their first drink or smoke their first cigarette in their teens, and that reducing access to liquor or cigarettes during that critical time period can curb addictions and save lives.
Prior to Thursday’s vote by the Salem Board of Health, opponents of raising the minimum smoking age said the measure was an attack on personal freedom and argued that it would be ineffective because teens would just go to neighboring towns to buy their cigarettes.
They also point to the evidence from Needham. When Needham adopted its Tobacco 21 law in 2005, the town had a smoking rate among high school students of 12.9 percent; the rate in surrounding communities was 14.9 percent. By 2010, the rate in Needham had fallen to 6.7 percent, while the rate in surrounding communities dropped to 12.4 percent.
“The percentage decline in Needham was nearly triple that of its neighbors — contradicting the hypothesis that young people will simply shift their purchases to surrounding towns,” according to an article earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Dr. Jonathan Philip Winickoff of Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the coauthors of the New England Journal of Medicine article, said Needham’s experience is what is changing public policy on smoking. “It was the shot heard round the world,” he told the Needham Times.
— BRUCE MOHL
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