By targeting use, bill seeks to snuff out youth smoking
Critics call it a massive loophole in Massachusetts' smoking laws: While selling cigarettes to a minor is illegal, there is nothing to stop a teenager from puffing the day away in plain view.
That's because state law only regulates the sale of tobacco to minors but says nothing about its possession or use.
A group of state legislators hoping to crack down on youth smoking is looking to change that. Under a proposed law set for a Beacon Hill hearing today, anyone under 19 caught smoking or possessing tobacco would be required to perform community service, enroll in a tobacco education program, or both.
Lawmakers backing the measure argued yesterday that banning the sale of tobacco to minors has hardly denied them access to cigarettes, which can be purchased by older friends or from merchants who ignore the law.
''It's relatively easy for kids to get cigarettes. We'll make it illegal to possess them.'' said Representative Shaun P. Kelly (R-Dalton), one of the bill's cosponsors. ''It's not the purchasing that kills people, it's the use that kills.''
The stricter laws would resemble strict prohibitions on alcohol use by people under the legal drinking age of 21. In a statement supporting the measure, Dr. David Rosenthal, chairman of the Massachusetts Coalition for a Healthy Future, said the group's goal ''is to one day have parity between alcohol and tobacco.''
According to a November 1999 survey by the state Department of Education, 69 percent of Massachusetts high school students say they have tried smoking. Nearly a fifth of them said they had used tobacco on school grounds.
The proposal will be heard today by the Legislature's Joint Committee on Health Care. If approved, Massachusetts would join three other states - Alabama, Alaska, and Utah - that have passed similar laws.
Rosenthal said in an interview yesterday that the measure enjoys the support of law enforcement officials who are frustrated that ''they can accost someone for selling cigarettes, but can't do anything about someone using them. Right now if you see a 12-year-old kid smoking, you can't do anything about it.''
Under the new measure, police would not arrest any youths. Instead they would be required to confiscate the tobacco and issue tickets to the minors.
Some lawmakers and state officials have expressed skepticism, worrying that it would burden police officers with an impractical responsibility and take the focus off a recent campaign to crack down on merchants who sell tobacco to minors, said Representative Charles A. Murphy (D-Burlington), another of the measure's sponsors.
Rosenthal said zeroing in on youths was simply the logical next step in the state's antismoking efforts.
''Now that retailers have been held to the law, we think it's time that kids are too,'' said Rosenthal, who leads a coalition composed of 35 health groups, including the Massachusetts Cancer Society and the Massachusetts Association of HMOs.
Rosenthal said that the smoking rate among Massachusetts minors is dropping, even as it climbs in most other states.