Youth activists in Massachusetts are stepping up to face the tobacco industry — and continued widespread addiction to the substance — declaring their support for legislation designed to raise the age of the sale of tobacco products to 21 statewide.
Approximately 21 youth activists gathered at the Massachusetts State House last Wednesday to testify in support of the bill — “An Act to Protect Youth from the Health Risks of Tobacco and Nicotine Addiction” — which focuses on underage high school students and reducing smoking in that demographic, Kevin O’Flaherty, the director of advocacy at Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said.
The group sees the tobacco industry’s primary goal as luring young individuals into trying their product, becoming hooked and developing a lifelong addiction, O’Flaherty said.
The bill is aimed at combatting that goal, he said.
“It’s really about trying to prevent future adults — today’s kids — from having access to tobacco and getting hooked at an age when they’re really likely to become more addicted and have a stronger addiction,” O’Flaherty said. “It is really designed to prevent retailers from … getting these products into high schools through 18 and 19 year olds.”
Rather than engaging in these efforts for easy college credit, O’Flaherty said, the youth involved want to make a difference.
“They’ve seen loved ones or their parents pay the price for a tobacco addiction,” O’Flaherty said. “Also, they see some of their friends and kids in school picking up this addiction at a very young age.”
The bill is composed of three components, which includes raising the age of sale to 21, prohibiting the use of e-cigarettes in areas where smoking is prohibited and prohibiting the sale of tobacco products in pharmacies and healthcare institutions, O’Flaherty said.
Support for the bill and similar efforts are grounded in an understanding of known health consequences, and for the purpose of keeping tobacco products out of the reach of high school students, O’Flaherty said.
“When you look at what is happening in the adolescent brain, kids are much more likely to become addicted to tobacco if they try it in their teens rather than in their twenties,” O’Flaherty said.
O’Flaherty expressed he is confident the bill will be passed, with many members of the legislature in favor.
“With 65 percent of the state already having this law in their communities and a majority of legislatures in both houses supporting the bill, I just think it’s a matter of time,” O’Flaherty said.
Carly Caminiti, project manager of The 84 — a movement driven to protect younger demographics from being exposed to the tobacco industry’s tactics — wrote in an email that youth play a powerful role in changing policy when they make their voices heard.
“Young people are amazing advocates and very well-respected by decision-makers,” Caminiti wrote. “They have an incredible power to shed light on public health issues and have continuously advocated for policies that make a difference in their community.”
Many of the youth involved in The 84 have worked on local policy to tighten regulations on tobacco products in their own town, Caminiti wrote.
“Sometimes this has included local regulations on raising the minimum purchase age to 21, but it is always tied in to other research-based provisions that are meant to protect youth from the tobacco industry’s tactics,” Caminiti wrote.
Sarah Ryan, 16, of Holbrook, and a member of The 84 statewide leadership team, wrote in an email while all of the young activists involved have a different reason or story for doing so, they share a similar end goal.
“We want to protect ourselves and others from the dangers of tobacco,” Ryan wrote.
Ryan wrote the effects of tobacco use are seen far and wide.
“Of course, there are the widely-known ones, such as cancer, stroke or heart disease, but there are also risks specific to youth users,” Ryan wrote. “Nicotine is a highly addictive substance. Exposure to nicotine at a young age can negatively affect susceptibility to addiction, impulse control, and overall brain development.”
Several Boston-area college students expressed varying opinions on the bill, as well as the use of tobacco products.
Nicolas Suarez, a freshman studying political science at Boston University and member of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said he became involved with working against tobacco use in high school as a means of helping his mother quit, and has kept up with his efforts since.
“I got involved with the Tobacco Free Mass bill,” Suarez said. “We want to get people to realize that more than 9,000 Massachusetts residents die annually from the use of tobacco products. It’s a big problem.”
Dinene Bundu, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, said he does not believe that raising the age of sale of tobacco products will have a significant positive impact.
“When I started smoking I could’ve bought it myself but I didn’t, I got them from my friends and people … are going do that — it’s just obvious,” Bundu said. “It’s the same with the whole marijuana thing. You legalize it but people are still going get it from other people, so there is no real way to really control how much people smoke and at what age.”
Esteban Marte, a sophomore studying biology at Suffolk University, said as more individuals become aware of the dangers associated with tobacco use, the less they will want to use the products.
“The resistance here to tobacco products has always been strong,” Marte said. “There [are] definitely a lot of people who still smoke in this country but I believe it’s always been dwindling especially as more and more people start to realize the effects of tobacco.”
Alima Soré contributed to the reporting of this article.