New York City Council Votes to Raise Tobacco-Buying Age to 21

Bloomberg has 30 days to sign bill into law, which would take effect 180 days after enactment

Thomas Farley, Christine Quinn

Thomas Farley, Christine Quinn in April, announcing legislation.

NEW YORK -- The City Council in New York on Oct. 30 voted overwhelmingly to raise the tobacco-purchasing age from 18 to 21, making New York the biggest city to prohibit cigarette sales to 19- and 20-year-olds, and one of only a few places throughout the United States that have tried to stymie smoking among young people by raising the purchasing age.

The council also approved a bill that sets a minimum $10.50-a-pack price for tobacco cigarettes and steps up law enforcement on illegal tobacco sales, reported the Associated Press.

"Between 2001 and 2011, New York City cut the proportion of public high school students who smoke by more than half," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement after the council's vote. "However, the decline in youth smoking in our city has stalled. We know that tobacco dependence can begin very soon after a young person first tries smoking so it's critical that we stop young people from smoking before they ever start. By increasing the smoking age to 21 we will help prevent another generation from the ill health and shorter life expectancy that comes with smoking."

Bloomberg, a strong supporter of tough smoking restrictions, has 30 days to sign the bills into law. The minimum age bill will take effect 180 days after enactment.

The city's current age limit is 18, a federal minimum that is standard in many places. Smoking in city parks and beaches already is prohibited as it is in restaurants.

Advocates say higher age limits help prevent, or at least delay, young people from taking up a habit that remains the leading cause of preventable deaths nationwide.

But cigarette manufacturers have suggested young adult smokers may just turn to black-market merchants. And some smokers say it is unfair and patronizing to tell people considered mature enough to vote and serve in the military that they are not old enough to decide whether to smoke.

"New York City already has the highest cigarette tax rate and the highest cigarette smuggling rate in the country," Bryan D. Hatchell, a spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., told the news agency. "Those go hand in hand and this new law will only make the problem worse."

Another anti-smoking initiative pushed by the Bloomberg administration was shelved ahead of Wednesday's vote: forcing stores to keep cigarettes out of public view until a customer asks for them.

Similar legislation to raise the purchasing age is expected to come to a vote in Hawaii this December, said the report. The tobacco-buying age is 21 in Needham, Mass., and is poised to rise to 21 in January in nearby Canton, Mass. The state of New Jersey also is considering a similar proposal.

"More than 80% of adult smokers in NYC start smoking before age 21, so raising the sales age to 21 will protect teens and may prevent many people from ever starting to smoke. The Sensible Tobacco Enforcement law will prohibit discounting and crack down on illegal untaxed cigarette sales, both of which attract young people to smoking. These two laws will protect our young people from the marketing of tobacco and represent historic advances in our fight against New York City's leading killer," Health Commissioner Thomas A. Farley said in a statement.

"The number of retailers flouting the law has reached an epidemic level. It is clear that the laws on the books were simply not strong enough to prevent many retailers from selling untaxed cigarettes," Finance Commissioner Beth E. Goldman claimed in a statement. "This legislation passed by the Council gives Finance new tools to crack down on disreputable retailers and black market bootleggers, level the playing field for law-abiding businesses and protect the city's fiscal and physical well-being."