A Suffolk lawmaker has filed a bill to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes and other tobacco products in the county from 19 to 21, but concedes he expects "a battle for each and every vote."
Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), a pediatric surgeon, said his proposal will discourage young people from smoking at an age when they are most prone to addiction.
"It will save a lot of lives," said Spencer, who filed his proposal after the Suffolk County Board of Health in November urged raising the age.
Convenience stores and gasoline stations are girding for battle to block the proposal, which follows a series of landmark anti-smoking measures adopted by the county over the past three decades.
Spencer put the proposed law before lawmakers at last week's organization meeting, nearly eight years after the legislature became one of four in the state to raise the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 19. The measure is scheduled for its first public hearing on Feb. 11.
If passed, the law would cut health costs because smoking-related diseases cost the state $8 billion annually, said Michael Seilback, an American Lung Association vice president.
"Considering that 85 percent of smokers start before age 21 this will prevent more Suffolk County youth from succumbing to an addiction that could cost them their lives," he said.
Backers say New York City recently adopted a similar measure and Needham, Mass., which raised the age to 21 eight years ago, has had a 50-percent drop in youthful smoking.
Critics say the proposal will have little health impact and would ban smoking among those old enough to serve in the military and die for their country. They also say it would reduce store traffic and create a drain on county and state coffers.
"What you're doing is asking mom and pop retailers to correct the ills of society," said Michael Watt, executive director of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association.
Under the proposed law, store owners could not sell cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, powdered tobacco or other tobacco products or herbal cigarettes, rolling papers or pipes to persons under 21, and owners would need to get proper identification before making sales.
Officials have not yet estimated the tax impact.
New Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said he has no position yet, but expects a contentious debate. Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) minority leader, said he opposes the measure, though the GOP caucus has not taken a position. "I'm fed up with government's quest to regulate every element of behavior," he said.