Health: Chatham Considers Banning Tobacco Sales To Those Under 21

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Health

Teenage smoker.

CHATHAM In a time when intensive tobacco education has fallen by the wayside in many school health programs, town regulations can be an important tool when it comes to curbing teenage smoking.

That's the perspective of Bob Collett, the director of the Cape Cod Regional Tobacco Control Program. Collett is working with the Chatham board of health on a more restrictive local tobacco regulation that aims to keep cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco – and newer nicotine delivery devices – out of the hands of local teens.

A key component of the revised rules would make it illegal for local businesses to sell tobacco to people under the age of 21. So far, more than 115 cities and towns in Massachusetts have adopted this rule, which specifically targets high school students over age 18 who often buy tobacco and then provide it, or even sell it at a profit, to younger teens. Most 21-year-olds would be unlikely to do so, Collett said.

“In the towns where this has happened already, there has been overwhelming support from the general public for increasing the legal age of purchase to 21,” he said.

Though it has encountered some opposition elsewhere, another provision being considered by the Chatham health board would ban the sale of flavored cigars and cigarettes.

“These are generally sold as very inexpensive, convenient alternatives to cigarettes, which are really attractive to young people,” Collett said.

In addition to being flavored like candy, fruit or alcohol, these products are sometimes sold individually for as little as 49 cents, an affordable price for children and teens. In communities that stop short of banning flavored cigars and cigarettes, it can be effective to require higher minimum prices or the sale of only multi-packs.

“That's been of of the very effective strategies to slow youth initiation,” Collett said.

Funds aren't available on a county level to conduct tobacco education programs in the schools, Collett said. While monies were available for Massachusetts schools starting in 1992, the funding was stripped by the governor's office in 2002 and 2003, he said. Local schools teach kids about the dangers of tobacco, but the effort is inadequate, Collett said.

“They don't have the funding to do so,” he said. That makes local regulations even more important.

A third potential component of a beefed-up Chatham tobacco regulation could be language that broadens the rules to apply to all products and devices that deliver nicotine, not just tobacco. The provision chiefly targets e-cigarettes, sometimes known as “vapes.” The regulation would not seek to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes, but would impose the same restrictions that apply to cigarettes, including the ban on under-21 sales or the use of flavorings.

“Originally they were advertised as an effective smoking cessation tool,” Collett said. Now, those who use vapes tend to become addicted at a higher rate, “because they use these products indoors” where smoking is prohibited, he said. If they were regulated like tobacco products in Chatham, e-cigarettes would be illegal to smoke in indoor public places and workplaces. Since 2014, smoking has also been prohibited at Chatham parks and beaches.

Chatham Health Agent Judith Giorgio said the board of health is still drafting revisions to the regulations, and may consider voting on a proposal in late winter or early spring. The town is working with Collett and with the state association of health boards, and is likely to adopt a localized version of a model regulation that's been successfully adopted in other communities.

Health boards have the statutory authority to regulate tobacco and nicotine products without the need for a town meeting vote. Should the board agree on new rules, they would likely take effect next summer, Giorgio said.

The minimum tobacco sales age is 21 in Orleans, but remains 18 in Harwich and Chatham. Collett agreed that some teens will travel across town lines to purchase tobacco legally, but he said local regulations can provide the momentum for broader rules. About 15 years ago, individual Cape Cod towns opted to become smoke-free in restaurants and public places, and eventually the Cape and Islands became the first region in the state to adopt the controversial rules, “which kind of liberated the rest of Massachusetts,” Collett said. Since 2004, the whole state has been smoke-free in indoor public places and workplaces.

This article has been corrected to reflect that the changes being considered are regulations, not bylaws.  12/18/16.