I had my first cigarette when I was 13; stole it from my dad’s pack of menthol Pall Malls and smoked it on the back porch. I had heard cigarettes were a good way to relax. I took a few puffs. The flavor was all ash and prickly mint. For a moment a rushing dizziness pulsed in my head. I didn’t see what the thrill was.

But I kept smoking.

Tobacco companies have to snag their victims young. Nine out of 10 lifelong smokers have their first cigarette before the age of 18. And studies show once you get past 18, the odds of picking up the habit decline with each passing year.

Tobacco is a literal cancer on society. Cigarette companies spend billions on advertising to encourage people — young people — to smoke. To fight back against this offense, cigarettes have to be more difficult for teenagers to obtain. The age of tobacco purchase should be raised to 21.

This isn’t a new idea. In January the towns of Leverett and Montague joined more than 30 other Massachusetts communities in upping the age restriction. California is considering raising the age statewide.

Proponents of setting the age of purchase to 21 point to Needham, the first city to try out the new age limit. Needham increased the legal age to 21 in 2005 and studied the impact. Between 2006 and 2012, the rate of teens smoking fell from 13.5 percent to 5.5 percent, the town reports.

Setting the age of purchase to 21 would have kept me from smoking as a teenager. I didn’t go to school with anyone that old. Over the next three years after my first cigarette I smoked at parties and with friends who were real smokers. I was shy and you can bond over cigarettes. I didn’t start buying my own packs until I was 16. I had an 18-year-old friend with a car and no qualms about picking up an extra pack or two when he was at the convenience store. Sometime in college my smoking habit got up to about a pack and a half a day. I couldn’t put gas in my car or anything more extravagant than a can of beans in my belly, but I had smokes in my pocket.

I eventually quit, cold turkey, my senior year. I didn’t have the quarters to do my laundry as often as necessary then, so my twice-worn, smoke-infused clothes sat in smelly heaps on my bedroom floor for weeks. I couldn’t stand the old cigarette-butt stench.

I was lucky. I quit and maintained it. Every day, 4,000 U.S. children under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette; 1,000 of them will become longterm smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Still, raising the age of purchase has its detractors. Industry leader Altria Group, makers of Marlboro, want to frame the situation as a matter of legal authority — should towns be allowed to set their own ages of tobacco purchase? — rather than focusing on the 1,300 Americans who die every day from smoking-related illnesses.

Lorillard, Inc., the makers of Newport and the third leading tobacco company, makes the tired excuse that if someone can vote and go to war, he or she should be able to smoke. But this negates all the other ways America tries to protect 18-year-olds. For example, an 18-year-old can’t rent a car, get a hotel room, buy booze, become president or gamble. Smoking is a natural addition to this list.

Then there’s the convenience store industry, which notes, accurately, that if some towns raise the age of purchase, young customers will spend their money in towns where the purchase age is 18.

I have little sympathy for industries that value bottom lines over the lives of their customers. Besides, what about America’s bottom line? Diseases caused by smoking result in $96 billion in health care costs each year. Much of this bill is picked up by taxpayers through public health programs. Raising the age would slash this expense.

In 2005, the University of California, Irvine ran a long-range computer simulation of the impact raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 would have on the state. Researchers found that over the course of 50 years, upping the age would reduce smoking prevalence for teens ages 14 to 17 by 82 percent and it would save residents $24 billion in health care costs.

The age of tobacco purchase should be 21 nationwide, but our do-nothing Congress has little more than grandstanding on the agenda for the next two years. The movement will have to be grassroots, town by town. For more information on how your town can raise the age of tobacco purchase to 21, go to tobacco21.org/state-by-state.•

Contact Kristin Palpini at editor@valleyadvocate.com.