While marijuana has been stirring vigorous debate leading up to this week’s election in Massachusetts, a Westwood pediatrician has set his sights on more familiar types of smoking.
Dr. Lester Hartman is so concerned about the toxic effects of tobacco use on young people that the Needham resident is asking the health boards of up to 20 communities south and west of Boston to raise the smoking age to 21 from 18.
“Ninety percent of lifetime smokers begin before the age of 18,” said Hartman. “Theoretically, because of the rapid brain wiring changes in adolescents, getting someone past 18 before starting may have an effect.”
Hartman’s hometown already restricts tobacco sales to people age 21 and older, and now he wants that practice to spread.
The 54-year-old Hartman took on his mission after a one-year sabbatical last year to earn a master’s degree in public health. In Massachusetts, such policies are made on the local level, so on his own time, Hartman has made pitches in such suburbs as Walpole, Medfield, Sharon, Norwood, Westwood, and Dedham.
Next up on the list are Mansfield, Foxborough, Easton, Canton, and Norfolk, he said, and future visits will take him to a number of area communities, including Newton and Plainville.
“The reception has been great in most towns,’’ Hartman said. “It’s not so controversial an issue, except possibly for the convenience stores that will lose money.”
Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Convenience Store Association, said that about two-thirds of the 3,077 convenience stores in Massachusetts are single-location operations.
“They are true mom-and-pop businesses, and if they aren’t able to effectively compete they are the ones that might likely close up shop” if they lose sales, he said.
Lenard questioned what makes 21 the magic number, and whether Hartman or others would then ask to raise it to 25 or 30.
Around the country, the smoking age is 18 in 46 of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia. Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, and Utah have a smoking age of 19, as do Onondaga, Nassau, and Suffolk counties in New York.
Needham became the first community in Massachusetts to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 19 in 2003, and later raised it to age 21. Belmont and Brookline recently went to 19, and Watertown is considering it. Needham’s Public Health Department director, Janice Berns, said the higher limit seems to be working, citing surveys at the high school that show the percentage of students using tobacco every day dropped from almost 13 percent in 2006 to about 6 percent in 2010.
Westwood health director Linda R. Shea and other local health officials are also looking at ways to target what they call tobacco-delivery systems, which include inexpensive cigars manufactured in flavors such as strawberry and bubble gum, and chewing tobacco packaged in tins aimed at attracting young buyers.
In making his case, Hartman says that smoking and exposure to second- and even third-hand smoke so crucially affects brain development that denying access to tobacco for as long as possible may reduce the potential for addiction.
According to Hartman’s research, 1 billion people will have died from smoking-related illnesses by the end of the 21st century, up from 100 million at the end of the 20th century. He said he hopes his efforts have some effect on that figure, and he’ll continue his mission until the state takes notice and, hopefully, takes over.
“If we want to prevent addiction in children, this is what we need to do,” he said.