Suffolk lawmakers raise age for buying tobacco to 21

Suffolk County Legislator William Spencer, right, speaks about

Suffolk County Legislator William Spencer, right, speaks about a bill that he sponsored, raising the legal age to buy tobacco in Suffolk, prior to a vote on the evening of March 18, 2014. (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Suffolk County raised the age for tobacco sales from 19 to 21 last night, passing a bill with some of the tightest restrictions over cigarette sales in the country.

"This will save lives," Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), the bill's sponsor and a pediatric surgeon, said after the 10-8 vote.

The bill restricts stores in Suffolk County from selling cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, herbal cigarettes, rolling papers, pipes, as well as e-cigarettes, to those over 21. The law goes into effect Jan. 1.


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New York City late last year passed a similar age restriction, while the town of Needham, Mass., has instituted another proposal, according to the American Lung Association.

After a lengthy debate, in which convenience store owners said their businesses would be hurt and the rights of legal adults would be curtailed, health advocates applauded when the vote concluded.

Minority Leader Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) argued that by age 19 consumers can make their own decisions: "Nineteen-year-olds have a bundle of rights -- they can vote, they can marry, they can enter contracts and serve in the military -- but to say they don't have the innate ability to make a choice about tobacco consumption gravely concerns me as overreaching."

The six Republicans were joined by Legis. Kate Browning (WFP-Shirley) and Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon).

Legis. Steve Stern (D-Huntington) was the key swing vote. He said during the debate he would vote to raise the age only because of the highly addictive nature of cigarettes.

D'Amaro voted against the proposal. He said this bill unfairly targets 19- and 20-year-olds and puts the burden of enforcement on retailers.

"Twenty-one is an arbitrary number once you get talking about minors," he said.

Spencer introduced his bill after the Suffolk Board of Health recommended raising the age for tobacco sales in November. Legislative budget analysts have estimated that the proposal could cost the county $412,000 lost in sales tax from tobacco sales, but provide long-term health savings of $2.9 billion.

The law would impose fines of up to $1,000 for businesses that sell tobacco to customers younger than 21 on a first offense and up to $1,500 for second offenses.

Gas station and convenience store owners attacked the proposal as an economic hardship on their businesses and an assault on the rights of 19- and 20-year-olds.

Patricia Orzano, a 7-Eleven store owner who lives in West Babylon, said, "These people vote, they serve in the military, have abortions, get married."

Jack Rugen, who owns a 7-Eleven store in Rocky Point, said his outlet sells about $70 a day in tobacco products to 19- and 20-year-olds. Rugen also has criticized the law, since there will be no penalty for those under 21 who are smoking or buy cigarettes -- only on the retailers caught selling the cigarettes.

But Long Island health advocates said raising the age would cut the number of young smokers, saving the county long-term in health care costs and in the number of older smokers.

In a 2000 study, 90 percent of adults who smoked started by 21, and half of them became regular smokers by their 18th birthday.

"Suffolk County will once again be a leader in public health law," said Michael Seilback, vice president of the American Lung Association of the Northeast, citing the county's early adoption of a ban of smoking in restaurants and other indoor places.

Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James L. Tomarken urged lawmakers to pass the bill. "Rarely do you get the chance to pass legislation that could literally save lives. I urge you to do so," he said.Also Tuesday, lawmakers were expected to vote on a home-rule measure asking the State Legislature to allow the county to transfer 33 park police and make them county police officers. Suffolk then plans to hire about 45 seasonal park rangers to work during the busy summer months.

Legislative budget analysts issued a report saying the move would save $2.97 million in 2014 and $27.1 million through 2018. However, the analysts warned that any delay -- including a possible lawsuit from those on the existing police hiring list -- may add $1 million in police overtime costs this summer.

The legislature also was expected to vote on a proposal that would double traffic fines within 30 days and triple them in 60 days in an effort to relieve the backlog of 14,754 tickets that have gone unpaid at the county's traffic and parking violations bureau.

Some legislators have raised concerns that the hike would most harshly impact the poor who have less ability to pay.

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