New York raises tobacco-buying age
Smokers younger than 21 in the biggest city in the United States will soon be barred from buying cigarettes.
The New York City Council voted overwhelmingly yesterday to raise the tobacco-purchasing age to higher than all but a few other places in the US.
City politicians approved the bill - which increases from 18 to 21 the purchasing age for cigarettes, certain tobacco products and even electronic-vapour smokes - and another that sets a minimum 10.50 dollars (£6.55)-a-pack price for tobacco cigarettes and steps up law enforcement on illegal tobacco sales.
"This will literally save many, many lives," said an emotional City Councilman James Gennaro, the bill's sponsor, whose mother and father died from tobacco-related illnesses.
"I've lived with it, I've seen it ... but I feel good today."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of the tough smoking restrictions, has 30 days to sign the bills into law. The minimum age bill will take effect 180 days after enactment.
"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," Mr Bloomberg said.
With yesterday's vote, New York is by far the biggest city to bar cigarette sales to 19-and 20-year-olds. Similar legislation is expected to come to a vote in Hawaii this December.
The tobacco-buying age is 21 in Needham, Massachusetts, and is poised to rise to 21 in January in nearby Canton, Massachusetts. The state of New Jersey is also considering a similar proposal.
Politicians who pushed for the change refer to city statistics that show youth smoking rates have remained at 8.5% since 2007.
"We have to do more and that's what we're doing today," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "We have a real chance of leading the country and the world."
The city's current age limit is 18, a minimum that is standard in many places. Smoking in city parks and beaches is already prohibited as it is in restaurants.
Supporters 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.
And they point to drinking-age laws as a precedent for setting the bar at 21.
But cigarette manufacturers have suggested young adult smokers may just turn to black-market merchants.
And some smokers say it's unfair and patronising 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," said Bryan Hatchell, a spokesman for RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, which makes Camel and other brands.
"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 previously shelved ahead of yesterdays vote.
The mayor proposed in March a bill modelled on laws in Iceland, Canada, England and Ireland to require shops to keep tobacco products in cabinets, drawers, under the counter, behind a curtain or in other concealed spots until a customer asked for them.
He said the displays "invite young people to experiment with tobacco."
But a similar measure had been rescinded in suburban Haverstraw, New York, after cigarette manufacturers sued. They said it violated their companies' free speech rights to communicate with consumers about their products' availability and prices.
The city health department said the measure was taken off the table because "with the arrival of e-cigarettes, more time is needed to determine how best to address this problem".
E-cigarette makers say their products are healthier than tobacco, and a trade association leader bristled at the city's proposal to prevent people under 21 from buying them.
"Is 21 the right number? People can join the Army at 18," said Ray Story, founder of the Atlanta-based Tobacco Vapour Electronic Cigarette Association.