Tobacco sales up due to border crossers despite purchasing age hike

  • Menthol cigarettes Courtesy photo—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/11/2020 9:13:22 AM

New Hampshire recently raised the age for legally purchasing tobacco to 21 in order to comply with federal Tobacco 21 legislation. The shift could have major long-term impacts on smoking rates and associated health conditions, Cheshire Medical Center’s Tobacco Cessation Program manager Dr. Seth Emont said. Emont also heads the Cheshire Coalition for Tobacco Free Communities. The change’s effect on local retailers has been minimal as most have been enforcing the new age since the FDA’s federal bill passed in Dec. 2019, and the uptick in sales following Massachusetts’ recent ban on flavored tobacco more than covered the difference, local retailers said.

At Harris’ Mini Mart in Bennington, manager Bob Patel said he changed his tobacco sales policy to 21 after the federal FDA bill passed in December 2019. He said he has no concerns about the effects of the legislative changes, and that he’s already seen a slight increase in purchases for menthol cigarettes since Massachusetts’ ban was enacted. More business will likely come once interstate travel picks up some more, he said.

“It’s easier when we’re checking IDs if we stick to one date,” The Country Mile manager Bert Lashua said. The Greenville store has been enforcing the age limit of 21 since January, he said, even though New Hampshire was only enforcing a purchasing age of 19 so far this year. “With us being one of the only privately owned liquor stores in the state... we didn’t want to take any chances and do everything we can to stay above board,” he said.

The change in purchasing age is unlikely to change sales revenue much, Emont said, since adults ages 18 to 20 comprise just two to four percent of cigarette consumption. However, it has tremendous potential to help keep tobacco products away from youth. For one, three out of four kids who smoke report that they obtain their cigarettes from sources in their social network, and more than half report that it would be easy for them to get tobacco products, “usually because they’re getting them from kids that are older than they are,” Emont said. Raising the purchasing age reduces the pool of a teenager’s peers who can procure tobacco for them, he said. It was popular, too: three quarters of the general public and two thirds of smokers nationwide supported the age change, he said.

Furthermore, the new age is data-based, Emont said. Kids’ brains are more vulnerable to the effects of nicotine and addiction, he said, and most users get hooked at a young age. “If nine out of 10 people are smoking before 21, it’s definitely going to have an impact on smoking,” he said. The policy is projected to decrease smoking by 25 percent among kids ages 15 to 17, and could reduce smoking rates nationwide by 12 percent and smoking-related deaths by 10 percent over time, he said. New Hampshire has one of the highest youth tobacco use rate in the country, he said. Overall, Granite Staters require almost a billion dollars in smoking-related healthcare costs, and 1,900 deaths in the state are attributed to smoking annually. New Hampshire’s adoption of the federal policy also keeps it eligible for the full amount of federal block grant monies for substance abuse prevention treatment. “Especially for our state, it’s a really big deal,” Emont said.

The new policy comes at a time when national tobacco use is on the decline overall, but electronic cigarette use is skyrocketing among teens. “It’s actually kind of scary how high it is,” Emont said, with half of high school students reporting to have tried e-cigarettes, and about a third of those being regular users. Health effects of e-cigarettes are still under review, but what’s known should elicit caution. “A lot of kids will say that their pods don’t contain nicotine,” Emont said. “That’s actually not true… you can’t always believe what you read on the label,” he said, where nicotine concentrations or even its presence are often misrepresented. The contaminated THC vape pods that hospitalized hundreds last year were largely counterfeit, but legitimate e-cigarettes also contain ultrafine particles that go deeply into the lungs, and have been found to contain heavy metals like nickel, lead, and tin.

Emont cautioned that the policy alone is insufficient for curbing tobacco use without enforcement, higher associated taxes, strong prevention programs and programs that promote healthy development. He cited Massachusetts’ ban on flavored tobacco as the next logical step to curb youth consumption, as the exotic flavors marketed by tobacco companies are a direct appeal to the 18- to-21-year-old crowd. It’s easier for smokers to inhale more deeply when they smoke menthol cigarettes as well, he said. Right now, however, local retailers are cashing in on border-hopping Bay Staters.

“The menthol ban has been huge for us,” Lashua said, “People are loading up.” Sales began to increase when the pandemic closed a number of Massachusetts stores, and then increased even more when the ban went through on June 1, he said. Since Bay Staters are driving a half hour or more to get to the store, the store has seen an uptick in liquor sales as patrons attempt one-stop shopping, he said. The state’s reporting a 104 percent increase in menthol cigarette sales and a 150 percent increase in flavored smokeless tobacco sales as compared to last year, according to a study by the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association. A representative from North of the Border in Rindge could not be reached to comment on the story.


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