Majority Republicans in the Nassau County Legislature have decided to block a vote on a bill that would raise the age to purchase tobacco products to 21, placing Nassau among the dwindling number of downstate counties allowing 19- and 20-year-olds to buy them.
Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said she will not call a vote on the Nassau bill sponsored by Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) to raise the age from 19 to 21, arguing that state legislators in Albany should deal with the issue to ensure "statewide uniformity."
Jacobs said the county risks gaining a reputation as the region's go-to locale for young smokers.
"Why would we want to be labeled as a haven for ill health?" asked Jacobs. "The losers here are our young people."
A bill passed this month by the Suffolk County Legislature, raising the age limit from 19 to 21, goes into effect Jan. 1, and a New York City law raising the age to 21 takes effect May 19. The minimum age is 18 in Westchester County.
Nassau in the past was at the forefront of antismoking legislation.
Under majority Democrats in 2002, Nassau became the first county in New York to ban smoking in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and bingo halls. Suffolk, Westchester and New York City then passed similar bills, and a statewide ban on smoking in those establishments was enacted in 2003.
In 2006, the Democrat-led Nassau Legislature increased the age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 19. Suffolk passed a similar law in 2005.
Michael Seilback, a spokesman for the American Lung Association, said 90 percent of smokers pick up the habit before they turn 21. He argued that Jacobs' bill would make it more difficult for young people in Nassau to buy cigarettes and begin smoking.
"We don't need another generation of kids addicted to this deadly product," Seilback said.
But Kevin Beyer, president and chief executive of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association, said if 19- and 20-year-olds are old enough to go to war, get married and vote, they can make their own decisions about smoking.
Beyer said he expects Nassau retailers in areas including Valley Stream and Elmont, near the Queens border, and in Syosset, Jericho and other areas near Suffolk, to see increased business once the New York City and Suffolk laws go into effect.
"Nassau businesses stand to benefit, especially in these border areas," Beyer said.
The Long Island retailers lobbied against the Suffolk and the Nassau legislation, Beyer said.
Bills to raise the age statewide haven't gained traction.
Assemb. Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) sponsored a bill last year to increase the age to purchase tobacco products statewide from 18 to 19. The measure never made it out of the Assembly's Committee on Codes, and the GOP-led State Senate did not introduce a similar bill. There is no state legislation in play this year.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Robert Degirmenci, manager of H & R Services, a gas station in Farmingdale in Suffolk County, near the Nassau border, said counties shouldn't be enacting laws piecemeal. He said Suffolk's new law could cost him up to 20 percent of his tobacco business.
"Every little bit hurts small businesses," Degirmenci said. "They can't keep changing the law on the county level. They should change it statewide."
Philip Castaldo, who owns two 7-Eleven stores in Commack, said 19- and 20-year-olds in Suffolk will shop in Nassau or on Indian reservations, or find adults to buy cigarettes on their behalf.
"The goal of the bill is great, but it will do nothing," Castaldo said. "All it is doing is punishing legal business owners."
Gonsalves said she is "not concerned" about young smokers flocking to Nassau.
"The people who want to smoke will find a way to purchase it," she said.