Suffolk bill raising age to purchase tobacco to 21 becomes law

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, holding a new Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, holding a new law that he signed, shakes hands with Legis. William R. Spencer on Monday, April 14, 2014, at the Tri Community Youth Agency in Huntington Station. Photo Credit: James Carbone

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County Executive Steve Bellone signed into law Monday a bill that would raise the age to purchase tobacco products from 19 to 21, one of the toughest anti-tobacco laws in the nation.

Health advocates believe the new law, which would take effect Jan. 1, will help lower the number of new smokers, but convenience store owners said youth will only be driven to other sources for cigarettes, while their shops are hurt.

"I have no doubt this will save lives," Bellone said at a Huntington community center, where he was flanked by lawmakers, health advocates and Nassau lawmakers who are pushing for similar legislation. Motioning to about two dozen kids, he said, "It will help young people like this be prevented from smoking."

The law, sponsored by Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), a doctor, was passed by a 10-8 margin in March by the Suffolk County Legislature.

Health advocates and Nassau County lawmakers who attended the signing Monday said they hoped Suffolk's bill would spur Nassau legislative leadership into entertaining similar legislation pending there.

Nassau Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) said Monday that "it's shameful" that Nassau has not raised the age to purchase tobacco. The county is sandwiched between Suffolk and New York City, which last year passed legislation to raise the age to purchase tobacco to 21.

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The proposed law in Nassau remains pending. Nassau Presiding Officer Norma L. Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) believes the issue should be decided at the state level, said Cristina Brennan, a spokeswoman for majority Republicans. County Executive Ed Mangano's spokesman, Brian Nevin, referred questions on the issue to Gonsalves.

Convenience store owners said they were preparing for an economic hit from lost sales, not only on cigarettes, but from high-profit products such as cigars, rolling papers and e-cigarettes, which also will be off-limits to 19- and 20-year-olds under Suffolk's law.

"I don't think they realize the gravity of it, really," said Jack Rugen, who owns a 7-11 franchise in Rocky Point and is vice president of the United Franchise Owners of Long Island. He estimated his store would lose $60 to $90 a day in sales to 19 and 20 year olds, who would go to stores in Nassau or online.

Kevin Beyer, president of the 900-member Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association and the owner of a Smithtown gas station, said the bill in Suffolk won't work. "It will not achieve its intended goal. It will, however, drive more young people to the black market and to Nassau County, costing Suffolk County-based mom and pop retailers -- and Suffolk County -- much needed revenue streams," he said in a statement.

A Suffolk legislative budget analysis estimated that the county could lose as much as $412,000 in sales tax revenue a year from lost sales, though there could be $2.9 billion in long-term health savings if the smoking rate decreases.

Bellone said he listened to economic arguments, but noted that too many people die each year -- an estimated 443,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- from smoking related causes. "While we made progress, we still have a long way to go," he said.

After years of decline, smoking rates among New York high school students have increased slightly in 2012, the latest numbers available.

Stores face fines ranging from $300 to $1,000 for the first offense, up to $500 to $1,500 for the second offenses.

Spencer, the bill's sponsor, said the public health aspect has always been the driving factor, but there's also a personal aspect to the bill. His mother died nine years ago, when she was 58. She had started smoking when she was 19. "She tried all her life to quit," he said.

With Siobhan Barton

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