Suffolk Board of Health Board raising tobacco purchase age to 21

William Spencer, Democratic incumbent for Suffolk County William Spencer, Democratic incumbent for Suffolk County Legislature 18th District, poses for a portrait during a party meeting. (May 20, 2013) Photo Credit: James Escher

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The Suffolk County Board of Health recommended unanimously Wednesday that the county legislature raise the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 19 to 21.

At its monthly meeting in Great River, the seven-member board backed a measure that Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) is drafting and plans to introduce in January.

Spencer, a surgeon who sits on the health board and is chairman of the legislature's Health Committee, said his legislation would increase the age to purchase cigarettes, cigars, electronic cigarettes and other tobacco products.

The board's vote to back Spencer's legislation came a day after the New York City Council voted to raise the age limit to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. The legal purchase age in Nassau County is 19.

"When I look at Suffolk, we've always been out front on these issues of public health and protection, [and] it seems natural that we should put forward legislation that helps cut down on disease and helps decrease addiction," Spencer said.

Spencer said his bill will need the approval of legislative committees and the full legislature.

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Suffolk Health Department spokeswoman Grace Kelly-McGovern said the board, which includes county Health Commissioner Dr. James L. Tomarken, "all agreed this was something that would be good for public health."

Nassau Health Department spokeswoman Mary Ellen Laurain said no similar measure has been proposed in Nassau, but the health department and health board "look forward to reviewing any legislation that may be introduced in Suffolk County."New York City's measure drew opposition from business groups including the New York Association of Convenience Stores. The association argued that increasing the age to purchase tobacco products would cut down on sales and drive down foot traffic at stores.

Spencer said the argument prioritizes "economics at the expense of disease and addiction."

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