By Seth Daniel
Everett officials held a public hearing Monday night on a proposal that would raise the legal age for smoking and vaping in the city to 21, noting that they would schedule a vote for their next regular meeting in December.
The proposal also has significant reforms for retailers in Everett who sell flavored tobacco products and flavored vaping products. Vaping is the new process that uses a liquid, sometimes infused with nicotine, to deliver water vapor that is inhaled and then exhaled – much like a cigarette but without the “tar” in tobacco.
The Board of Health heard comments for nearly one hour on Monday in City Hall about the plan -with most of the comments coming from the medical community and those involved in youth programs. The proposal is similar to those already approved in Malden, Medford, Somerville, Chelsea and Boston.
Only Revere, like Everett, has not passed an increase to the tobacco purchasing age – though Revere is also currently holding public hearings at its Board of Health on the matter.
“I think we’ll take everything said under advisement,” said Dr. Sean Connolly. “I want to wait until we have our third board member to have a vote. Unfortunately, we could have a 1-1 vote and without a third board member, we could be in a lot of hot water. We will put this to a vote and schedule it for our next meeting.”
Some retailers in the audience who sell flavored tobacco products in places like convenience stores or variety stores would be dramatically effected by the new policy. According to the new rule, they would be able to sell regular cigarettes, Menthol cigarettes and regular vaping juice, but none of the flavored products. Those products are mostly in cigars and cigarillos, as the federal government outlawed flavored cigarettes in 2009. In the meantime, though, retailers and tobacco companies have begun selling cigarillos and vape juices that are flavored like strawberry, mango and vanilla – to name a few. Those, advocates for the rule said, are targeted to teens and middle schoolers. For that reason, variety stores and convenience stores would no longer be able to sell them under the rule. A retailer would have to become a certified tobacconist and those stores would only be able to sell tobacco products and would be only for those age 21 and over.
Variety stores and convenience stores, once again, could sell cigarettes and non-flavored vape juice, but only to those that have an ID proving they are 21.
The change comes locally due to the fact that the State Legislature hit a roadblock last year with a statewide bill raising the smoking age to 21. While the bill passed the Senate, it stalled out in the House. Now, advocates have been criss crossing the state to get individual communities to pass the regulations so that the law can be implemented piece by piece.
Dr. Lester Hartman, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital, said that 60 percent of the state now has a similar regulation and just about every community surrounding Everett.
He said Everett has a lung cancer mortality rate for adults that is 59 percent higher than the state mean, and he said flavored cigars and vape juices are readily available, cheap and targeted to Everett teens.
“We bought several of these products here in Everett before tonight’s meeting,” he said. “We have chocolate and strawberry and other flavors. They’re not making these for me…The vaping is coined as a smoking cessation device. It’s a smoking initiation device for kids. This is targeted because it’s flavored, which is for teen-agers.”
He said one of the major problems with having such items readily and legally available for 18 year olds is that many upperclassmen are over the legal age. Because of that, Hartman said there is good evidence that kids of legal age buy such products and then sell them to underage kids at schools.
Meanwhile, Everett vape shop owner Alec Winocour – who operates Ma-Zell in Glendale Square – said he has no problem with more stringent regulations for cigarettes because his store is bent on helping people stop smoking tobacco. He said he hoped to have some tweaks to the regulation so that young men who wanted to quit smoking would be able to buy the vape juices he sells.
He said most of what he sells has zero nicotine in order to wean people off of tobacco. However, he said he does sell juices up to 12 mg so those just starting to quit have a place to begin.
He proposed to keep most of the regulation, but to grandfather members of the military who are under 21 and those who are under 21 at the time of the rule’s passage.
“I have a lot of folks around 19 or 20 who were in the military and come in to my shop and want to quit smoking,” he said. “I would say it’s about one-quarter of my business…I don’t see a lot of 14-year-olds walking down the streets in Everett smoking a cigarette. There are a lot of 18 and 19 year olds who are smoking and they want to quit. We want to help them. This product works. It worked for me. I smoked for 30 years.”
He said he fully supported the idea of his shop and other shops being 21 and over.
“The ones that are doing most of the harm are the variety stores, the Tedeschi’s, CVS and Walgreens,” he said. “They sell the Blue cigarette. They don’t care about getting the nicotine out of your system. They want to keep you on cigarettes.”
Some storeowners did question the policy.
One man who did not give his name said he owns a variety store and has a license to sell tobacco products. He wanted to know why he is being penalized despite not breaking any rules.
“They say I have to check the age for this and I check the age,” he said. “The law says I have to check the ID and I do. Why is it I am being penalized?”
Jaime Lederer of Teens in Everett Against Substance Abuse (TEASA) said young people in Everett are confused about vaping mostly. She said they get mixed messages about whether it’s safe and/or healthy.
She said she does believe vaping and cigars are targeted to young people and would like to see the new rule.
“The population of young people is really diverse,” she said. “Tobacco companies do target low income communities like Everett and they target racial groups…This is a racial justice issue and a public health issue.”
The next meeting will likely be scheduled for December and a vote is expected.