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Raising Tobacco Purchasing Age Remains A Hot Topic In Berkshires


Starting September 1st you will have to be 21 years old to purchase tobacco or nicotine in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It’s part of a growing effort to curb tobacco use in the county.A unanimous decision by the Board of Health Monday makes Williamstown the second municipality in Berkshire County to raise the age for tobacco purchases from 18 to 21. Lanesborough’s statute doesn’t go into effect until 2018. Williamstown Board of Health member Dr. Win Stuebner says the board considered studies including a March finding by the Institute of Medicine that show raising the age above 19 significantly dropped teenage smoking rates.

“The 21 age seems to be the key age,” Stuebner said. “Probably the reason for that is that takes the age out of the teenager’s peer group. At 19 they may still have friends that can buy them the tobacco products, but at 21 that seems to be a little more difficult.”

Management and ownership at West’s Wine & Spirits and The Spirit Shop, two businesses that sell tobacco products in Williamstown, had no comment on the move. Sandra Thomas, outgoing executive director of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce, said no businesses had spoken to her about the age increase.

According to the advocacy group Tobacco21, 70 Massachusetts communities have raised the tobacco purchasing age above 18 since 2005. Jim Wilusz is helping to lead the effort in Berkshire County. He is the director of public health for the Tri-Town Health Department whose Tobacco Control Program covers 12 communities.

“Berkshire County has a lot of rural towns that don’t have a lot of stores to begin with so they don’t tend to get on the map,” Wilusz said. “I’ve been working with my funded towns for the last year plus working on raising the minimum age. I think policy changes like this take time. People need to understand the concept and vet it out.”

Wilusz says Lenox, Lee, Stockbridge and Pittsfield are among the communities considering raising the age. Berkshire County’s smoking rate is 17 percent. Nearby Hampshire is 12, Franklin 18.2 and Hampden nearly 19 percent according to Department of Public Health reports from 2013. The statewide rate is 15 percent. Wilusz is planning a countywide meeting with all the boards of health in support of Tobacco21 this fall.

“To really look at this from a regional approach,” he said. “I think the more towns on board, the better impact we are going to see in Berkshire County because we still have some of the highest smoking prevalence rates compared to the state.”

Wilusz says North Adams has the state’s highest smoking prevalence rate at 28 percent. Pittsfield comes in at 21 percent along with a teenage pregnancy smoking rate of 25 percent. The state average is 7 percent. Wilusz says multiple factors, including socio-economic levels, lead to high smoking rates.

“The density per capita of how many retail stores that sell tobacco per population of 1,000…we want to get a handle on that,” Wilusz said. “Berkshire County has a lot of tobacco retail stores in areas of school zones and in walking distance. Marketing is a big problem with regard public health targeting the youth.”

Wilusz says if health boards in bordering towns raise the age it will create more rapid change — otherwise young people would be able to go to neighboring communities that don’t have such statues.  

“It’s great that we see grassroots movement from community to community and sometimes we have ebbs and flows in that process, but if we can move the needle to get actual state legislation that covers the whole entire state only then will we start to see rapid changes.”

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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