Last month, Massachusetts became the sixth state to boost its legal smoking age to 21. While two dozen other states considered similar bills this legislative session — and many likely will do so again in 2019 — much of the groundswell of activity isn’t happening in state capitols.
A growing number of local governments are acting on their own to ban the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 21. At least 340 towns, cities and counties in 21 states have taken action, compared with about 200 in 14 states in 2016.
They include not only major cities such as Minneapolis, New York City and San Antonio, but also small communities such as Basalt, Colorado, and Holcomb, Kansas.
Anti-tobacco advocates point out that raising the buying age would save lives and cut long-term health care costs — most smokers begin the habit before age 19 — while opponents fear the hits on retail sales and local tax revenue. The push for change continues as cigarette use among teens has declined in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the use of electronic cigarettes, or vaping, has become much more popular.
The actions by local boards of health, city councils and county commissions to raise the smoking age are making legislators in some state capitols take notice.
“It springs up spontaneously, like little wildfires,” said Rob Crane, a medical doctor and president of Tobacco 21, a Dublin, Ohio-based advocacy group that supports raising the minimum age to 21. “These are folks who are your neighbors. When you approach city council members in a small town in California or Ohio or New Jersey, they listen.”