The town of Brookline, Massachusetts is a tobacco control trendsetter. Not only was the Boston suburb an early adopter of indoor smoking bans, it also passed a Tobacco 21 law way back in 2014, and was among the first cities to cap the number of tobacco licenses available to retailers. In May 2019, Brookline banned sales of flavored tobacco (and vaping) products, beating the state to the flavor ban punch by six months.
Now Brookline will become the first U.S. city to impose one of the most aggressive, radical and downright bizarre tobacco sales restrictions short of a complete sales ban. The so-called Tobacco-Free Generation law will prohibit sales of tobacco or e-cigarette products to anyone born during the current century.
How does it work? Simple: if you were born before Jan. 1, 2000, you are able to buy vapes, snus, cigarettes, or any other tobacco product. If you were born on or after that date, you’re still a legal adult but you will never have the right to buy tobacco products in Brookline—not even when you’re 50-years-old.
The Tobacco-Free Generation (TFG) concept began in Singapore, although no TFG law has yet passed in that country. It is supported and promoted by some American tobacco control groups, including Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Boston’s Northeastern University. PHAI calls TFG “an elegant approach,” and says that the 2009 federal Tobacco Control Act “affirms the authority of state and municipal governments to prohibit the sale of tobacco products to individuals of any age.”
“We should know by now that prohibition of sale to a particular age group does not mean that nothing is sold,” wrote tobacco policy expert Clive Bates in a 2015 critique of various tobacco “endgame” strategies, including the Tobacco-Free Generation model. “It means that the supply chain reconfigures to match demand through intermediaries and illegal sales.”
Bates notes that authorities already struggle to prevent sales to minors. “This proposal extends this ineffective model to adults,” he writes, “who will need to carry age-related ID and be barred from buying tobacco even if they choose to—an infantilisation of adults that most would find absurd and unacceptable….So the proposal combines a proven ineffective measure with [a] patronising approach to adults.”
The new law virtually guarantees straw purchases, black market activity, and booming sales for retailers located just outside the town limits (Brookline is bordered on three sides by Boston). But just because it’s bound to be ineffective doesn’t mean tobacco control’s morality police won’t want to try it. That’s especially true in Massachusetts, where the culture’s Puritan roots are forever showing.
Anti-tobacco activists in Brookline have been pushing the Tobacco-Free Generation since at least 2016, and the 2020 law that passed was originally even more drastic. A preliminary draft of the proposal to amend the town’s by-laws—called Article 14—set the cutoff date for purchasing to Jan. 1, 1976. It was revised to Jan. 1, 2020 because the Town Meeting’s Advisory Committee believed a law using the earlier date was “likely to be struck down by the Attorney General.”
On Nov. 19, 2020, Brookline Town Meeting members passed Article 14 by a vote of 139 to 78, and the local law went to the state for review. Yesterday Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey approved the measure, noting that the Tobacco-Free Generation law does not conflict with the laws or constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Brookline’s “by-law banning the sale of tobacco products to those born after January 1, 2000 is within the Town’s authority to safeguard public health,” Healey wrote.
For nicotine users in other towns, cities or states who are tempted to laugh at the Tobacco-Free Generation law in Brookline, just remember how crazy Tobacco 21 sounded when you first heard of it. Or smoking (and vaping) bans in open spaces like parks. Or the PMTA process. Or the vape mail ban. The goal is to eliminate all tobacco and nicotine use, and it happens one step down the slippery slope at a time.
“It sets a vision for an outright ban by incrementally creating one, even if it takes decades to arrive, while having a minimal impact on retailers,” said Kate Silbaugh, one of the Brookline Town Meeting members that created the TFG law.
According to Brookline Town Clerk Benjamin Kaufman, the Tobacco-Free Generation law will take effect as soon as it is posted on the clerk’s website this week.